Would you trust a robot to drive your car?

Science fiction writers have come up with a lot of interesting ideas about the future of transportation. Flying taxis have been around (in books) since at least 1940. When I was a child, we expected that there would actually be flying cars by the year 2000.

I vaguely remember reading Robert Heinlein’s short story “The Roads Must Roll,” in which the roads move instead of the people. There are strips moving at different speeds, ranging from 5 mph up to 100 mph. I’ve often thought of that story (without being able to remember most of the details) when attempting to merge into a lane of faster traffic.

There is the idea of teleporting, instantaneous transportation from one place to another. The best known example is “beaming” in Star Trek, but the idea goes back to at least 1933 (Frank K. Kelly).

The idea of cars that can drive themselves is hardly new either, but I don’t remember it showing up very often in the stories I have read. I suppose it just doesn’t make for much drama. I remember very much enjoying “Knight Rider” in the early 1980’s, but it was KITT’s personality rather than his (its?) technical capabilities that made the show interesting.

I used to think that self-propelled vehicles would require retrofitting the roads to embed devices that would enable the car to determine its current location. But GPS has changed all that, making it feasible today for a device to pinpoint its precise location. (At least as long as contact can be made with satellites – I don’t know what would happen to a robot car dependent on GPS when it went into a tunnel.)

While I try to keep up on current events via various news sources on the internet, I apparently missed the news in 2010 about autonomous automobiles. I learned about these amazing technological developments from reading a months-old copy of Popular Science while riding an exercise bike at the Y yesterday.

The article‘s focus is on the technology and its complexity (“the plug-in electric Chevrolet Volt, for example, requires 10 million lines of code, two million more than it takes to run a Boeing 787”). It addresses the potential benefits (drastic reductions in traffic congestion and accidents) and potential conflicts (who controls the car, the computer or the driver?), as well as pointing out the possibility that such cars will be sold with driving plans, like cell phones, instead of the current pricing models.

What the article doesn’t address, but which I immediately started wondering about, is how security would be handled. If someone hacks your computer today, you could lose money or data. That could be devastating to your personal or business finances, but the damages can be limited with appropriate planning and insurance.

What if someone manages to hack an autonomous car, however? Could they make cars drive into each other? What would it be like to be inside a car that was apparently going rogue? Would there be any kind of manual override? (Would anyone still know how to drive well enough to successfully avert disaster at that point?)

I see that the U.S. Department of Transportation is thinking about such possibilities. States are also beginning to address the legal issues. Autonomous cars will become legal in Nevada at the beginning of March. (I’m trying to picture a state trooper pulling over a self-driven car: “Car, show me your license.)

Is it a sign of my getting older that the idea of a robotic car doesn’t appeal to me? When driving and struggling to stay awake on a long trip, I’m sure I’ve wished for a car that could take over the driving for me. But if such an automobile were actually available (aside from the question of whether I could afford one), I’m not sure how comfortable I would be entrusting myself to one.

I have enough trouble relaxing sometimes when someone else is driving. It’s not that I think I’m such a great driver; I know that my husband drives better in bad weather than I do. But somehow sitting in the driver’s seat and having my hands on the steering wheel gives a sense of some measure of control. Being a passenger means that I have no control.

An autonomous car is probably a much better driver than any human. But knowing the glitches to which computers are subject, not to mention the possibility of malicious intervention by hackers, I don’t know how well I could sit back and relax with no one at the wheel.


3 Responses to Would you trust a robot to drive your car?

  1. I think the number one reason to want a robot to drive your car is to relieve yourself of the pressure for the task, but I totally agree with you…glitches, hackers, etc, means that control can easily be taken away and can now become very dangerous for the passengers and passerbyers on the streets and in other cars.

    Excellent post!


  2. Great post! It’s a topic that I have taken a lot of interest in.

    In terms of hacking driverless cars, it’s an interesting thought but the best way to avert this is quite simple – make the cars as autonomous as cars are today – ie. self-directed.

    The Google Driverless Car (and other similar projects) use GPS but only as a basic guide – the real grunt work is done by LIDAR (basically a laser radar system) and on-board cameras.

  3. Peter L says:

    Gives a whole new meaning to “automobile”, doesn’t it? I thought of the latest movie version of “I, Robot”, in which cars are programmed to drive you where you want to go. But there is a manual override.

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