Whether you call them driverless cars, self-driving cars, autonomous vehicles, or just SDVs (self-driving vehicles), it seems that everyone from Google’s Sergey Brin to Tesla chief Elon Musk – is singing the praises of this new and exciting technology.
And it’s easy to see why: Cut highway deaths by an estimated 93%; allow the handicapped, very young and very old to travel freely; reduce parking and traffic congestion; and convert commuting time to leisure time.
But even today (March 2015), many people have never heard of autonomous vehicles, or think that they are a 1960’s utopian fantasy – or a sinister threat.
After you start listing the people and companies with serious stakes in this new way of driving, the objections often boil down to simple uncertainty or personal preference: Are they safe? How can they know what to do in Situation X? (you name it: cop directing traffic, jaywalkers, alien invasion), and the most popular: But I like to drive!
Eager proponents of SDVs can be guilty of dismissing these concerns as childish, uninformed, or just plain wrong-headed. We point to the inevitability of the new cars, simply as a matter of dollars and cents.
If you’re in a collision with an SDV, with its perfect driving record and extensive cameras and sensors, who do you think will win in court? Your insurance company will be left holding the bill, and insurance rates will skyrocket for manual cars. So chercez l’argent, as the French might say, and soon enough everyone will be on board the self-driving bus.
Still, an honest assessment of SDVs points up some legitimate concerns, especially in the area of privacy and civil liberties. What follows is a short list of some real problems that we can anticipate when self-driving vehicles are on the roads.
No Driving Zones
Let’s say you decide to take a weekend trip to D.C. and want a close look at the White House, the Capitol, or the Supreme Court building. Maybe a really close look.
You can try, but your SDV won’t let you. Try again, and maybe it will take you on a one-way trip, doors locked, to the nearest police station or black site.
Unlikely scenario? Anyone paying attention to the current security environment will find this idea not only plausible, but completely predictable. And if your own car doesn’t make you drive to the precinct house, then the cop’s car may send you there using…
The “Ma’am, please pull over” Button
Your driverless car is returning home empty after dropping you off at the train station. Maybe this is your routine most days when you commute to the City and your spouse works at home.
But today is different – there’s a police roadblock on the way home. They’re checking for contraband drugs (some are still illegal in our future scenario), and they want your car to pull over to the side of the road. How can our loyal public servant tell you to stop, if there’s no one in the car? Simple – he issues a command over the V2V (Vehicle-to-Vehicle communication system): “Pull over now and unlock the doors”.
It’s easy to see how such a capability will be an absolute necessity when unmanned vehicles are on the roads. What’s also easy to see for any observer of human nature is how readily this can be abused.
The Self-Driving Suicide Bomb
Got a grudge against the Secret Service? Unhappy with your treatment the last time you tried to drive into the White House?
Simple: Tell your car to drive itself near your National Monument of Choice (without you aboard), and to cruise slowly in loopy circles until it spots the Secret Service agent or politician you want to take out (facial recognition software comes in handy here). Then when you’re as near as you can get, push the button on your remote-activated bomb and Voila! (those French people again) problem solved.
But maybe, in view of your previous driving habits, the authorities don’t want you or your vehicles on the road at all. No problem, all they have to do it add you to the…
We all know that there’s a list of some 50,000 individuals that are not allowed to fly on commercial airlines (apparently if you can charter a jet, you’re home free). For years even the very existence of this list was secret. The criteria for inclusion on this list, and the criteria for getting off the list, are still closely-held secrets.
It’s but a small leap of logic to imagine a similar list for suspicious drivers or passengers in SDVs. And the oft-quoted “Driving is a privilege, not a right” may be applied to passengers also.
…And What Can We Conclude?
Like any technology, SDVs can be used for good or evil. But first-use patterns can become hard-to-break habits. So maybe the lesson learned is to advocate increased citizen input in the planning process now, while the technology is still in the new and flexible stage.