The pros and cons of the self-driving car revolution

Examining what it would mean to let AI take the wheel

AI arm and a steering wheel.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Gettyimages)

According to a new survey by AAA, close to 70 percent of Americans are afraid of fully self-driving cars, Axios reports. This number is up from previous years. The increase, according to the findings, is largely due to the public misunderstanding of self-driving technology and "recent headline-grabbing incidents" regarding self and assisted-driving technology. As technology becomes more advanced, here is a look at both sides of the debate on whether self-driving is the future:

Con: Machines are not as smart as humans

Self-driving systems "simply lack humans' ability to predict and assess risk quickly," explained Nick Carey and Paul Lienert for Reuters. The discrepancy would be even higher in "edge cases," or unpredictable systems. The development of automatic vehicles has proven to be more difficult than expected because "the brain makes judgments and assesses probabilities," and "every aspect of that thought process (conscious or unconscious) must be programmed to ensure safety," according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

"We have lots of empirical evidence that humans are incredibly good at intuiting the intentions of others," Sam Anthony wrote for Quartz. "The perils of lacking an intuition for state of mind are already evident," in self-driving technology, Anthony continued. For now, fully self-driving cars are not possible. Some AV start-ups have implemented "human supervisors" who sit "tens of hundreds of miles away monitoring video feeds from multiple AVs."

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Pro: Self-driving cars could make our roads safer

Despite concerns over whether self-driving vehicles could match up to human drivers, a study found that 94 percent of serious crashes in 2017 were due to human error, explained Bernard Marr for Forbes. "Fully autonomous vehicles would take human error out of the equation, thereby making our roads safer not just for drivers, but also passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians," he argues.

Self-driving vehicles have "superior senses" compared to human drivers allowing them to "navigate conditions that would be tricky for humans, such as driving through a fog bank or navigating a pitch black highway," wrote Caitlin Delohery for Utah Business. Given time, automatic vehicles have the potential to become safer than human drivers.

Con: They could cause privacy and security concerns

"A real cyberattack against autonomous vehicles is very much in the realm of possibility," wrote Ines Kagubare for The Hill. If a hacker figures out the system being used by a potential car, they "can now target those cars on the road," said Shane Tews, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise to The Hill. It could allow vehicles to become "instruments of terror."

Aside from the mechanics of the car privacy could also be a concern because "AVs will record everything that happens in and around them," argued The Economist. Self-driving taxis can contain large amounts of information about passengers which "could open the door to segregation and discrimination" and "restrict people's movements."

Pro: They could mark the end of parking problems

The widespread adoption of self-driving cars could lead to an "efficient use of space," especially in congested urban areas, per Charles Choi in IEEE Spectrum. Autonomous vehicle lots "would not require elevators and staircases" and people ... could simply be dropped off ... and let the vehicles park themselves." In turn, "That land could be allocated to other activities — residential space, perhaps, or maybe green areas for everyone," said Sina Bahrami, a transportation engineer at the University of Toronto.

People would likely own fewer cars, opting to "make use of automated ride-sharing or taxi services," argued Marr for Forbes. As a result, there will be "fewer people needing to find a parking space" and "the buildings of the future may no longer be flanked by huge, ugly car parks."

Con: They could cause job losses

The shift to autonomous vehicles could be "costly for some people, especially workers in legacy industries," according to Carolyn Fortuna of CleanTechnica. While there is a lot to gain in a growing new industry, some historic jobs may prove to become obsolete. Investopedia explained how "people who earn their living from driving these vehicles will suddenly find themselves out of a job" and how it would likely "be difficult ... to quickly find new work."

A study published in 2021 found that people "believe governments are not prepared for the transformations AVs will force upon workplace arenas." Fortuna wrote, "Efforts to design new jobs created by AVs should take advantage of the skills that people in the disrupted occupations already have."

Pro: They could be more environmentally friendly

In the future, self-driving vehicles could possibly help to reduce emissions because they "use significantly less gas and energy when driving, compared to a vehicle driven by a human" explained Ashleigh Rose-Harman in Greener Ideal. Also, most of the autonomous vehicles being developed and driven currently "are already fully electric" making them less damaging than their gas counterparts. The development could also lead to people purchasing fewer cars and avoiding "unnecessary overlapping trips that contribute to emissions."

However, the benefit is contingent on whether companies could improve the efficiency of the computing technology at a "significantly faster pace," Soumya Sudhakar, a researcher at MIT, told The Washington Post. "If we get ahead of it, we could design more efficient autonomous vehicles that have a smaller carbon footprint from the start."

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