Autonomous vehicles permit humans to divert focus

How many hours do you spend driving every week? Over the course of your life, how many of those oh so few days will you ultimately spend stuck in traffic, waiting for red lights and yelling at other drivers?

Most people look forward to the day they get their driver’s license. It represents a pivotal moment in a person’s life, where they are finally free to control their own movements — assuming, of course, that their parents allow them. Many people are proud of their ability to drive well, some even taking their car to track days to further hone their skills.

Now consider this: what will the world be like when everyone forgets how to drive? This is not a distant possibility in some far flung future, but, in all probability, the world of your children or your children’s children. With the pace at which autonomous vehicle technology is advancing, it won’t be long before cars are fully capable of handling your daily commute.

Delphi, an automotive supplier, recently outfitted an Audi Q5 with an autonomous navigation package, and proceeded to direct it to drive from San Francisco to New York City. It completed the journey in nine days, with human intervention on only a handful of occasions: to avoid a police vehicle on the shoulder, and to navigate zig-zagging lane lines in a construction zone.

In none of these cases did the vehicle demand intervention, but rather the engineers on board were simply not comfortable enough with the technology to see how well it would handle the situation autonomously.

This is in contrast to the Darpa Grand Challenge, arguably the first serious attempt at an autonomous vehicle, which was launched in 2004. In 11 short years, humanity has gone from haphazardly throwing jeeps across a desert to navigating the travails of the interstate highway system from coast to coast.

In another 11 years, it is not hard to imagine the cars being more capable drivers than their human counterparts.

Unfortunately, with any new technology comes risks. In this case, problems such as software bugs, bad updates or malware could all lead to fatal collisions. That said, they must be evaluated as risks, weighed against their severity and the frequency. The most likely types of problems are severe software malfunctions, which could result in the car colliding into the environment.

We must then compare this to the alternative option of keeping people in the driver’s seat. People drink and drive, text their friends and talk on the phone while driving. All of these are generally regarded as unsafe practices, but their prevalence means that there are thousands of fatalities every year from accidents that could have been prevented by a more focused driver.

Each of these is likely comparable in severity to the worst that a software bug could cause, but the frequency would likely be much lower. With this in mind, it would be almost criminally negligent to allow people to continue to drive their own vehicles, when such a safer option exists.

At this point, a driver’s license becomes something that is only possessed by those whose profession demands it, or by those with a particular fondness for driving as a sport or hobby. The vast majority of the population will likely not have a driver’s license, and furthermore wonder why anyone would really want one.

Human-piloted vehicles may go the way of the horse within our lifetimes, and our children may ask us what is was like to live in a world so full of dangerous vehicles, driven by dangerous, distracted people. Perhaps the biggest upside to this will be regaining all the lost commuting time, and perhaps using it to catch up on some reading, or learn a new language.