Despite recent technological developments, self-driving cars remain far from ready to hit the commercial market. Substantial obstacles remain to be overcome; yet this innovation promises to change the way we think about transportation, navigating a city and even space overall. The race is on to put the first driverless vehicle on the market, with companies like Google, Uber and Tesla anxious to beat out underdog competitors from countries like China and Singapore. In this way, the contest to perfect this technology becomes symbolic of American entrepreneurs’ anxiety to stay ahead of Asian competition, particularly in high-tech industries that require massive levels of investment in R&D.
Recent advancements in the technology of self-driving cars promise to make them much safer before the technology hits the commercial market. Customer apprehension remains strong when faced with the prospect of relinquishing control over the steering wheel; publicized crashes involving self-driving vehicles, such as the Tesla’s fatal accident last May and Google’s recent incident (though no one was harmed) fuel fears as to the reliability of driverless vehicles (1,2). Recent technology advances address these flaws: for instance, Tesla developed a new radar-reliant update to its autopilot system in response to the fatal crash involving this system (3).
While the technology remains far from perfect as evidenced by these occasional flaws, one could argue that driverless cars are still a safer option than those driven by humans. Though it is very difficult to engineer an entirely fail-proof machine, decades of driving history clearly show that people are equally, if not more so, prone to accidents purely due to human error. Each year, more than one million people die globally in motor vehicle accidents, the majority of which are caused by human error (4). Roughly 30,000 of these are in the US (4). And while accident and fatality rates have been improving each year since the very invention of cars, this trend reversed in 2015 with fatality rates rising and continuing to rise in the first half of 2016 (4). This is likely due to increasingly distracted driving, with technology such as smartphones taking drivers’ eyes and hands off the road like never before. But whatever the cause, the fact remains that driverless cars are only getting safer while human-operated vehicles evidently are not.
Beyond the obvious safety concerns, self-driving cars face opposition among those opposed to the very idea of them. According to a recent survey conducted by the vehicle-buying guide Kelley Blue Book, a “slim majority” reported they did not want to give up control of their vehicles (5). For these Americans, the attachment to the very act of driving their cars is enough to cause resistance to a technology that promises to make the roads safer and less congested, not to mention freeing up valuable time – the average American commutes 25 minutes each way to work, which means that many spend more than an hour each day behind the wheel (6).
Like all nostalgia for simpler, less technologically advanced times, such sentiments will likely dissipate once the benefits of self-driving cars manifest themselves, especially if people suddenly find they have an extra hour or more to spend on more productive tasks than sitting in traffic. In this way, driverless cars may have a hidden benefit beyond the ones already widely extolled; they could easily boost productivity across the nation and the world by freeing up hours of time, or at the very least improve quality of life by making driving a passive and therefore less stressful experience.
More tangible benefits that driverless cars promise to deliver include making traffic flow more smoothly by reducing or eliminating traffic jams. Intelligent cars promise to banish the “phantom traffic jam,” the phenomenon that happens due to no tangible obstructions in the road but simply as a shock wave effect when one driver brakes, triggering a shock wave of slowdowns that can extend for miles downstream. The argument goes that a network of cars that can all communicate with one another will prevent such suboptimal human driving behaviors and maximize the speed with which all drivers on the road can arrive at their destinations (7).
While they promise to make our lives much easier in the near future, this innovation also instills great anxiety in American innovators as they scramble to put a self-driving car on the market before their foreign counterparts. Specifically, the race for the driverless car feeds into the American paranoia of being economically overtaken by rapidly developing Asian countries. News that Didi - the Chinese ride-sharing equivalent of Uber - is speaking with start-ups and engineers in hopes of incorporating the technology into its services, and of Singapore launching the first real experiment in self-driving cars in the form of a taxi program, seems to portend what many fear: that America is no longer the center of global innovation, outpaced and obsolete (8,9). However, it is wise to keep in mind that these initiatives still largely rely on American-grown technology; and moreover, the US has little to gain in testing driverless cars at home in the early stages of the technology. The outrage and skepticism over Tesla’s and other accidents show that Americans are unlikely to embrace self-driving cars until the technology is largely perfected. Introducing them too early would only lead to backlash over inevitable missteps, so it is wise to wait and allow others to test for potential issues and fix them before exposing American consumers to this technology on a wide scale.
(1) Vlasic, Bill and Neal E. Boudette. “Self-Driving Tesla Was Involved in Fatal, U.S. Says.” New York Times, 30 June 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/01/business/self-driving-tesla-fatal-crash-investigation.html?_r=0.
(2) Nunez, Michael. “Google’s Self-Driving Car Sends Operator to Hospital.” Gizmodo, 5 October 2016. http://gizmodo.com/googles-self-driving-car-crash-sends-operator-to-hospit-1787501759.
(3) Cardinal, David. “Tesla responds to Autopilot issues with major new radar-reliant update. Extreme Tech, 12 September 2016. http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/235418-tesla-responds-to-autopilot-issues-with-major-new-radar-reliant-update.
(4) Oremus, Will. “Self-Driving Cars are Getting Better. Are Human Drivers Getting Worse?” Future Tense, 6 October 2016. http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2016/10/06/human_car_fatalities_are_rising_are_self_driving_cars_the_solution.html.
(5) Burt, Jeffrey. “Many Americans Dismayed by the Advent of Self-Driving Cars.” EWeek, 6 October 2016. http://www.eweek.com/mobile/slideshows/many-americans-dismayed-by-advent-of-self-driving-cars.html.
(6) “Average Commute Times.” WNYC, n.d. https://project.wnyc.org/commute-times-us/embed.html#5.00/35.978/-95.004. Accessed 7 October 2016.
(7) Gibson, David K. “Can we banish the phantom traffic jam?” BBC, 28 April 2016. http://www.bbc.com/autos/story/20160428-how-ai-will-solve-traffic-part-one.
(8) Neiger, Chris. “Didi Chuxing is Taking Aim at Driverless Cars.” The Motley Fool, 9 October 2016. http://www.fool.com/investing/2016/10/09/didi-chuxing-is-taking-aim-at-driverless-cars.aspx
(9) Liang, Annabelle and Dee-Ann Durbin. “World’s first self-driving taxis debut in Singapore.” Associated Press, 25 August 2016. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/615568b7668b452bbc8d2e2f3e5148e6/worlds-first-self-driving-taxis-debut-singapore.
Image: © 1000words | Dreamstime.com - Google Maps Car in Bangkok
Katya is a third-year USC student, journalist and researcher currently at Sciences Po Paris for the semester. She covers a broad range of topics: sustainability, innovation, economic development and trade, and political and social trends. Her current research interests focus on gender in development, American politics and civil society in Eastern Europe. Her work and internship experience includes marketing at a LA-based startup, working as a legal intern, researching at a EU think tank in Brussels, and teaching English to French children in Paris. In addition to writing for GIT, she contributes to several publications, including IR journal Glimpse from the Globe and Mogul USC. For the past year, she has also served as Director of Project Management for USC’s only full-service, pro-bono, student-run digital marketing agency, Trojan Marketing Group.