The discussion below is adapted from my essay submission to the 3rd Annual Innovation Scholarship Contest from Herrman & Herrman.
Since the early 1920s, automotive manufacturers have toyed with the idea of the self-driving car, also called the autonomous car. As technology has improved, vehicles have progressed to greater levels of driving automation, evolving from Level 0 with no automation to Level 4 with high automation. With companies like Google’s Waymo drawing closer to the reality of having self-driving cars on the road, one must seriously consider the pros and cons in social, environmental, and economical spheres that the innovation poses.
- Dependence on a vehicle that intelligently responds to its environment without human intervention – decent but inevitably flawed – could reduce or eliminate vehicle accidents. The 1979 Tri-Level Study of the Causes of Traffic Accidents found that human error caused or probably caused 90-93% of all crashes studied (Smith 1).
- Self-driving cars could reduce road rage, defined as a “display of aggression by a driver” towards another driver (Department 1). As self-driving cars would, theoretically, maneuver roads with precision and ease, road rage would disappear.
- The current technology of sensors, connectivity, and software/control algorithms makes autonomous vehicles, essentially, computers, which can be hacked (Kornwitz 1). In 2015, security researcher Charlie Miller remotely hijacked an autonomous vehicle.
- Head of the EPA Office of Transportation and Air Quality Christopher Grundler remarked, “[T]he future of [autonomous vehicles] could be utopia or dystopia for the environment” (qtd. in Alexander-Kearns 1).
- On one hand, developers of autonomous vehicles claim that they “drive more efficiently than humans do”; however, this efficiency may nonetheless lead to an increase in gas demand and pollution (Beeler 1). These negative impacts would result from the increase in travelers on the road, as autonomous vehicles eliminate the opportunity cost of driving.
- Workers may move farther from work, with this new convenience relieving the burden of a long commute. This increases vehicle and fuel usage and, ultimately, an increase in carbon emissions.
- Already in the automotive industry, manufacturers have redirected investment focus to driverless-car technologies in order to keep pace with the developing innovations, with 92% of cars in 2030 expected to include some combination of driver-assist features (Jones 1). This increases demand for STEM majors.
- The automotive industry may have to shift their marketing techniques as the demand for private vehicle ownership drops in favor of the convenience of autonomous car-sharing services (Liuima 1). Manufacturers may have to halve their car production, quite a blow to an industry that depends on private car demand for 35% of its value.
- Self-driving cars demand “better roads…lane marking…traffic-light timing…and maintenance” to maintain optimum, predictable performance (qtd. in Pethokoukis 1). To accommodate the needs of autonomous vehicles, cities would have to uproot their entire infrastructures, at an exorbitant expense to taxpayers.
- Self-driving cars would eliminate numerous job positions, including truck and taxi drivers. Workers whose jobs depend on the non-autonomous nature of cars fear unemployment as computers replace drivers.
Like any innovation, self-driving cars present social, environmental, and economical pros and cons to the consumer. On one hand, their technology could decrease accidents and ease travel; on the other hand, their convenience could increase travel, and thus increase fuel emissions, and their growth demands a change in infrastructure and industry.
Each day automotive manufacturers and technology companies like Google progress further and further in developments to have autonomous vehicles available to the general public. Their effect depends on how companies introduce the vehicles to consumers, how consumers use them, and how businesses and cities respond.