Self-Driving Cars: Closer Than You Think

Oct 30, 2016

The future is now.  In several cities, companies from Ford to Tesla are racing to develop their own automated driving machines.  We discuss the innovations and challenges of self-driving cars, and ask what it will take to make you comfortable in the passenger seat? This program will be rebroadcast on Monday, October 31st, at 9 A.M. and then Tuesday, November 1st, at 8 P.M.

This is a rebroadcast of a show that aired September 20, 2016. 

GUESTS:

  • Alex Davies - Transportation editor for WIRED Magazine (@adavies47).
  • Andrew Kun -  Professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of New Hampshire (@andrewkun).
  • Sean Smith - Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Institute for Security, Technology and Society at Dartmouth. He has a forthcoming book entitled The Internet of Risky Things: Trusting the Devices that Surround Us.
  • Clyde Terry - CEO of Granite State Independent Living and Chairperson of the National Council on Disability.

The Department of Transportation released its first guidelines for regulating automated vehicles, days after Uber's unveiled self-driven cars in Pittsburgh, PA. Alex Davies covered this for WIRED Magazine. 

These guidelines highlight the three main promises that companies who develop autonomous vehicles are making: self-driving cars will make us safer, will save us time, and will reduce traffic. However, these promises raise many questions about the feasibility of fully-autonomous vehicles. Davies breaks down the different levels of autonomy in a recent article.

On the subject of whether self-driving vehicles should have an override function, which allows a person to take control of the car, Andrew Kun says:

You pretty much have to have fully automated driving for [the technology] to be really useful. We will not do so well as humans sitting there and waiting for something to happen [so we can] take over.

Our guests emphasize that humans are not good drivers. In our recent show on traffic accidents, experts noted that distracted driving is a huge contributing factor to the rise of car-related deaths. 

If the safest option is to have a self-driving car that never needs human intervention on the road, technology has a long way to go. Our guests emphasized how complex this issue is. Sean Smith says that the depth of technology necessary to make self-driving cars functional leaves many opportunities for problems.

It's hard to build things that don't have holes, and it's hard to write regulations to test and enforce safety.

At the same time, fully-autonomous vehicles could be life-changing for some people. Clyde Terry, who is legally blind, says

To be able to access the system, to potentially have a car to go where I want to go, or work where I want to work, I'm not tied to public transportation...If we can get 100% autonomy [with self-driving cars], it does open the world up and allow [the disabled community] to go where they want to go.

Some companies, including Lyft, are hoping to have self-driving cars on the road within the next five years. The race to build a fully-autonomous vehicle gives people who long for the independence to travel something to look forward to. Terry says,

I look forward to the day, and five years is four and a half years too many.