A few weeks ago, Google unveiled a new prototype of the driverless car, and sparked the imagination of people around the world. Unlike previous models, this version was designed entirely by Google and contains no steering wheel or pedals, making it the company’s first model to be entirely self-controlled. Consumer reactions were mixed, with excitement and support on one side, and skepticism on the other.
Google isn’t the first company to test a driverless car. The idea of a self-guiding vehicle has been around since the automobile was first created, and inventors have been testing prototypes since the 1920’s, but no one has been more successful than Google. This new prototype is the first of its kind that completely removes the steering wheel and pedals from the passenger’s control. Google announced plans to build 100 electric powered prototypes for thorough testing in the near future, which will be built by an unnamed company in Detroit. Those models will have a limited top speed of only 25mph for safety reasons, and should be road-ready within a year. Google isn’t the only company that is working on driverless car technology however, and some are even experimenting with larger vehicles. Peloton Technology, based in California, is currently testing self-driving systems in semi-trucks. Their program, which allows tractor-trailers to follow each other very closely in convoys, decreases wind resistance and fuel costs up to 10% for trailing vehicles, and 4.5% for leading ones. This could be substantial in an industry where fuel represents 40% of operating costs.
The practical applications are obvious, and companies are scrambling to spearhead the industry, but is society really ready for a driverless car? One major roadblock is human nature. People tend to be scared of new technology, especially when it removes control from them. According to a Harris poll of 2039 adult consumers, 88% of motorists indicated that they would be worried about riding in a driverless car, meaning that only 12% would feel no apprehension. Although many have embraced self-driving vehicles as a technology for the near future, some think of them as psychopathic vehicles that will terrorize motorways and run down innocent children in school playgrounds. Fortunately, Google has embraced the natural reaction of the public and is working to cultivate acceptance through strict testing.
Like any new technology, the driverless car is hampered by many problems and concerns. The systems used in Google’s prototypes are state-of-the-art, but still require a substantial amount of testing before they can even be considered for use by the public. Even with testing, things could still go wrong. Hardware can always malfunction, and programs can encounter errors. Consumers can’t trust their laptops not to crash, let alone a self-driving vehicle. In addition to this, a driverless car could be hacked or sabotaged. 39% of drivers surveyed indicated that they would be worried about hacking. The consequences of tampering with a computer-driven vehicle could be horrific. Therefore it is crucial that driverless cars be fitted with anti-virus software, and have safety features to prevent accidents in the event of a malfunction.
Legislation and regulations represent a significant problem as well. 59% of drivers surveyed would be worried about liability issues. Before a driverless car can operate on public roads, many questions have to be answered by legislators. For example: If a driverless car parks in a no-parking zone, who will receive the ticket? Should it be the manufacturer’s fault because the no-parking zone wasn’t programmed in? Or would the owner be ticketed for not supervising his vehicle’s actions? In addition to this, modern traffic laws are designed to accommodate human drivers. Artificial intelligence can respond to situations with staggering speed. Should driverless cars be allowed to drive faster and follow other vehicles at a shorter distance to mitigate traffic conditions? It may be some time before laws can be put in place to integrate human and computer controlled vehicles, and until those issues are solved, the driverless car will remain an ambitious dream.
Unfortunately, modern society is not ready to embrace a driverless car, but there is hope. Each of these problems represent a challenge and an opportunity for growth. If there is any company with the money and technological might to make the self-driving vehicle a reality, it’s Google, but it will not be an easy process. Challenges must be overcome, ideas must be accepted, and people must allow technology to flourish. It is human ingenuity that will pave the way for intelligent technology. For every roadblock in the path of the driverless car, there is a solution that can lead to bigger and better things.
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