Self-driving cars- Would they be safe?

In 1964, Isaac Asimov wrote an essay in the New York Times expatiating his predictions for the year 2014. Although he did make a few duds, – he had predicted that we would have lunar colonies by now- one of the most accurate predictions he had made in the essay is summarized in the following excerpt:

“Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with ‘robot-brains’—vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver.”

Yes, the author, well known for his clairvoyance, had predicted our endeavour to build the self-driving cars – the one technology that is apparently Google’s solution for Utopia.

The recent years have seen companies like Google, Nissan, and Daimler Chrysler hiring the best minds in the market for building the first perfect, fully autonomous car. Admittedly, they have made some rapid strides too. Nissan has become gutsy enough to announce that it will get in the autonomous car business by 2020. Google has unveiled an adorable cutie pie of a car that doesn’t have a steering, brake pedals or anything that allows a user to control it, save for an emergency stop button. Just two months ago, Daimler Chrysler unveiled an 18 wheeled autonomous truck, and yes, we are talking about a 27 tonne monster that knows where it wants to go in life, or rather, on the road.

In fact, the technology behind self-driving car technology is advancing at such a rapid manner, that in recent months, the internet has become an arena for countless debates on a new subject: consequences of using self-driving cars. There are articles that discuss the redundancy of an insurance claim if you are using a self-driving car. There are countless others that merge the classic “Trolley problem” with the basics of automated decision making used in cars. In a gist, all these articles ask the same questions: what if self-driving cars, intentionally or unintentionally kill someone or destroy property? Are they a safer alternative to manual driving? Would people be able to hack into car systems wirelessly or may be, kill someone?

Let’s put these questions to ourselves. Given that the self-driving cars does become a reality, will it reduce the mistakes made by humans? Or will the self-driving cars lead to risks that we have not heard of. To answer the questions, one would counter that with a question- Don’t manual drivers make mistakes? Don’t they cause accidents?” Nevertheless, at least the self-driving cars can be tried and they can be programmed to avoid risks leading to better safety of passengers.

One might say that there is a point in using self driven cars if there is a drastic increase in statistics showing the automobile safety. But if the statistics, though it is a barefaced liar, has a different story to tell, then there is absolutely no point in using self-driven cars. Most people feel safe when they themselves are in control- not when the reins are with some fabricated chip. The only time when they feel safe is when they have statistical evidence. So the only question that makes sense is, “are self-driven cars statistically safer than human drivers?”

The sad truth is that statistical evidence would take time, because; there are only a very few autonomous cars are on the road today. However, Google says it has better statistics with their autonomous cars. Google has been working on autonomous cars since 2009 with more than 30 autonomous cars put on trial. The autonomous cars are tested in cities across the US and clocked more than 1 million miles. According to Google, the autonomous cars have had a total of 11 minor accidents as of today. Incidentally, Google claims that those accidents weren’t caused by the autonomous cars, but by its fellow motorists.

So, going by the above facts, one might say that the answer to the question “Are autonomous cars safe?”, is not so surprisingly, a reasonable “yes”. Autonomous cars are safe because they are not bound by emotions. They do not exhibit road rage. They do not use anything but cold, computational logic to make decisions. They are not distracted. And most importantly, they do not disobey traffic rules. Though all the above aspects do contribute to the added safety of the autonomous cars, perhaps the factor that contributes most to it could be that autonomous cars are well connected.

Autonomous cars are connected to a centralized system that supplies provides information about pretty much everything that is happening/ or possible to happen in the vicinity of their path. Much like Griffin, a character from the movie ‘Men in Black 3’. Though they are not “interdimensional beings capable of living in multiple dimensions at a same time”, they do have an extensive knowledge about all the possible outcomes that could occur in the route they take. So, they could potentially anticipate accidents before they happen and take the necessary measures to avoid the same.

The autonomous cars follow a modular design in which multiple autonomous cars are connected when they are in proximity. Each car is capable of making its own decisions and when an autonomous car in the vicinity goes haywire, the remaining autonomous cars coordinate with one another to bring the situation under control. Cool, isn’t it? In this way, the  autonomous cars would be able to efficiently reduce the number of accident cases and foster safety on roads.

Now that we are in the era of autonomous transportation that would inevitably infiltrate our daily life in the coming decade, the last question that would still linger in our minds, that one inconvenient question or fear would be “What would happen if the autonomous cars are hacked by someone?”. But since those risks are ever present in our tech savvy society we would ignore it. We might at the most, try to build a secure firewall or adaptive encryption, or high security codes. But no wall is impregnable. Every wall has a crack that can be breached. One day, someone would find that crack. Having said that, the designers of these cars will have to build failsafe cars and regularly provide software upgrades to improve the safety of passengers and also to other road users. With that, let’s hope to see these cars on road as soon as possible.

Leo Paul Johnson is a senior Patent Engineer in IP Astra