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Are you ready for self-driving cars?

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The future of self-driving cars is a like a pothole-filled road. It might eventually get you to your destination but not without some pain, bumps and damage along the way.

The general public has a variety of judgments about self-driving cars, with some people embracing the promise of the technology and others clinging to skepticism and concerns. And many people are taking a wait-and-see attitude holding out for the technology to prove itself before surrendering the wheel.

It doesn’t help that last week Tesla recalled more than 362,000 cars equipped with its Full Self-Driving driver-assistance system after government regulators found it increased the risk of accidents.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the fix would be delivered through an over-the-air software update and he objected to the word “recall” being applied.

Tesla’s technology allows the car to steer, accelerate, brake and change lanes on its own. But according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Tesla’s “Full Self- Driving” can travel above legal speed limits and through intersections in “an unlawful or unpredictable manner,”

The safety agency said there is “an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety based on insufficient adherence to traffic safety laws.”

Practically every auto manufacturer now offers some form of driver’s assistance. They range from adaptive cruise control, emergency braking, traffic jam assist, parking assist: blind spot detection, lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist.

All impressive— but that’s still a long way from a fully autonomous vehicle where you can 100% leave the driving to your car and still arrive safely at your destination.

When the self-driving tech is perfected, it will have to be a much better driver than a human and deliver the benefit of fewer traffic accidents and fatalities.

More than 46,000 people die in car crashes each year, according to Annual United States Road Crash Statistics (ASIRT). The U.S. traffic fatality rate is 12.4 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Road traffic crashes are a leading cause of death in the United States for people ages 1–54, and they are the leading cause of nonnatural death in the U.S. Speeding accounts for more than a quarter of all fatal crashes in the United States and is a leading cause of traffic fatalities in both single-car and multi-car crashes.

These statistics gives weight to the argument that it’s worthy to invest the effort to develop self-driving cars to improve public safety.

But this is also where the lion’s share of the skepticism resides. Many people are wary and guarded about the safety and reliability of self-driving cars and are concerned about the potential for technical glitches or errors that could cause accidents. There is the suspicion that a computer will not be able to anticipate the unpredictable nature of the remaining human drivers and pedestrians.

Even so, if the technology is perfected and optimum driving safety is achieved, there will always be the rare accident and the question will be who is liable. Who bears the responsibility in the event of an accident involving a self-driving car? Should the responsibility fall on the manufacturer, the software developer, the owner, or the passenger? This issue could prove to be more complicated than actually developing the technology itself.

There is also the concern of the loss of privacy implications of self-driving cars. They would be able to collect a significant amount of data about the passengers' movements, behaviors and even conversations inside the car.

Hacking is also a lingering threat for a self-driving car. It’s an open question if another party could gain access to the car’s commands and then put the passenger in danger.

However, the dividends from achieving a consumer-ready and dependable self-driving car are incalculable and would be far beyond the simple promise of convenience.

Suddenly there wouldn’t be the need for commercial truck drivers, taxi drivers, bus drivers and delivery vans. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were approximately 3.5 million people employed as drivers in the United States as of May 2020.

In addition, with fewer car crashes due to improved AI driving, there will be a need for fewer car mechanics and body repair shops.

Overall, while self-driving cars have the potential to revolutionize transportation, there are still many questions and controversies surrounding their implementation.

Commercial real estate could also be upended with the need for parking lots eliminated.

Overall, while self-driving cars have the potential to revolutionize transportation, there are still many questions and controversies surrounding their implementation.


Kara Kockelman, PhD
Dewitt Greer Centennial Professor in Transportation Engineering, Department of Civil, Architectural & Environmental Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin

J. Christian (Chris) Gerdes, PhD  
Professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University and co-director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS).

"The Source" is a live call-in program airing Mondays through Thursdays from 12-1 p.m. Leave a message before the program at (210) 615-8982. During the live show, call 833-877-8255, email thesource@tpr.org or tweet@TPRSource.

*This interview will be recorded on Monday, February 20.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi