May 31 – Autonomous Vehicle Day

May 31 is National Autonomous Vehicle Day. The dream of self-driving cars and trucks is very near to becoming reality. Although there are other technologies (like fusion-based atomic power plants) which have been just around the corner for decades, with self-driving cars, the engineering problems seem to have been mostly solved, and the remaining work is based on accumulating data, developing infrastructure, and resolving legal issues such as liability.

It may be a few years until we see true self-driving cars on the road. The promise of self-driving cars is that they will be safer, more reliable, and free up time drivers now spend in unproductive commuting. The downside is that drivers will turn over even more control of their movement to third parties. And the cost? Some say that self-driving cars will be free. That is, that you will be able to travel in a self-driving car at no monetary cost. How could this be? Just like Google allows you to use its search engine for free, and other web sites their features, cars may become a moving form of data collection on you and your life, as well as a platform for advertising and selling products. You might do your shopping at Whole Foods, and a car, with your groceries in the back, shows up to take you home from work. The ride is a bonus for shopping at Whole Foods. Or you may agree to watch ads during the trip, like airports sometimes offer in return for free internet access. You get the idea.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has brought setbacks to this industry as well. Early testing conditions may be ideal due to stay at home orders producing empty roads, however, social distancing stands in the way since testing autonomous vehicles requires two people in the car, and car seats are obviously not six feet apart. This two person policy is a result of an incident well before the onset of the pandemic when in March of 2018 an Uber autonomous vehicle killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. It was learned that only one person was in the car, since then two people have been the requirement. Also, the pandemic has brought about hardware supply chain slowdowns in China.

While the industry has had setbacks, steps are being taken to get to driverless cars. Mercedes 2021 S-Class, with its touch-sensitive steering wheel, will be its first production car actually having a system that will legally allow divers to take their hands off the steering wheel and let the car drive for you, but still under very specific conditions. This makes Mercedes the first Level 3 classified self-driving vehicle available in the United States.

Now with the economy not as friendly to companies requiring billion dollar capital investments with no clear timeline of a finished product or return on investment, investors are understandably cautious. However, consolidations are taking place with investors lining up behind companies that will be able to outlast these hardships and make good on their promises of this new technology. Waymo, a Google-only funded autonomous diving tech company, just received $750 million from investors outside Google. One thing a pandemic illustrates is the high demand for safe, contact-free, hygienic transportation services.

Questions:

  1. What problems do you think might arise from a system of free self-driving cars?
  2. Self-driving cars may be as disruptive to our culture as cars were in the first place. Who benefits and who is hurt by such a system?
  3. What are some of the other non-monetary costs of using self-driving cars? What about other non-monetary benefits?
  4. Could the pandemic and the streamlining of investors be good for the industry? How?
Image Citation:

18 May, 2018, Autonomous vehicle . Retrieved from <eengenious.com>.