As self-driving cars become more and more common, their adoption will have unexpected effects. Liam Glen writes on how autonomous vehicles will impact the job market, cybersecurity, the environment, and other sectors of society.
At the beginning of the last decade, the idea of a computer controlling an automobile was far from the public radar. But now, as companies like Tesla and Uber run increasingly successful tests, the advent of self-driving cars seems inevitable.
A future where a majority of vehicles on the road are autonomous is still far off. But they will become more and more common over the coming years.
In the long run, this will revolutionize the way we get from place to place. And given that automobiles are our primary means of transportation, the focus of much of our infrastructure, and the source of a large amount of our fossil fuel emissions, this revolution will have trickle effects.
This is sure to be a gradual process. But it is one that has already begun, and there is no way of reversing it. We do not know how quickly self-driving cars will take over, but we must be aware of the potential impacts.
The Benefits of Self-Driving Cars
To most people, the first benefit of self-driving cars that comes to mind is leisure. There is no more need for drivers to focus their attention on the road. Instead, an autonomous vehicle’s owner may do whatever they want while going from place to place. But while this may seem frivolous, there are much more pressing issues which self-driving cars will address.
Despite their pretentions otherwise – in one famous study from 1981, over 90 percent of American participants rated themselves as above-average drivers – humans are subpar at operating vehicles. Too often, they drive while drunk or look at their phones while behind the wheel. Even the ablest human driver has a limited attention span and a delayed reaction time.
The consequences are deadly. In the United States alone, car accidents kill over 30,000 every year. Around 94 percent of these crashes are caused by human error.
The technology is still a work in progress, but there is little doubt that self-driving cars have the potential to be much more capable than humans. Their sensors can see anything that is happening on the road at any given time, and they can respond to any new development as soon as it happens.
It’s a technology that can both save lives and improve them. Those who are currently unable to drive due to age or disability will gain the autonomy to travel long distances without having to rely on someone else to drive them. Moreover, the efficiency of self-driving cars means that they will be much less likely to get into traffic jams. As congestion grows into an unbearable problem in many urban areas, this would be a welcome change.
There is good reason to be optimistic about the potential of self-driving cars. But any new technology comes with unintended consequences, which may go for better or worse.
Jobs and Automation
Once cars can control themselves, the millions of people who make a living by driving will be at risk of being rendered obsolete. This applies not only to drivers, but anyone whose livelihood involves cars, even those who work in auto insurance.
But there is a reason that the process of economic change is known as creative destruction. As some jobs are lost, others are created. Along with offering opportunities in the technology sector, the efficiency of self-driving cars could have a plethora of effects that boost economic growth and employment in all sectors.
The spoilers of this growth, however, are not guaranteed to be distributed equally. A white-collar insurance worker may be able to find a new job with relative ease, but others will not.
The archetypical endangered worker is the trucker. In the United States, they number 3.5 million, have a median age of 46, and overwhelmingly lack college degrees, yet make higher salaries than the average blue-collar worker. If all were to suddenly lose their jobs, they would have severe difficulties finding their way back into the workforce.
It is all a question of how fast the technology develops. In the short term, automation might even be good for truckers. Vehicles could go on autopilot during long hauls on interstate highways, but humans would still be needed to perform maintenance or drive in more complex urban environments.
But in the long run, companies will see more and more opportunities to cut costs by firing manual workers and using machines in their stead. This could be a gradual process that takes place over decades, or it could be more sudden, with thousands or even millions unemployed over a few years.
The latter scenario could necessitate a reevaluation of the current social safety net. Most countries’ focus is on putting people back into the workforce, but that is not always possible. It should be no surprise the advocates of a universal basic income, such as Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, use truckers as a go-to example. Such arguments are likely to become more common over time.
After jobs, the next most common concern about self-driving cars is security. A vehicle controlled by a computer would always be at risk from hackers. Automobiles could be disabled and held for ransom. An interconnected network of cars could be infiltrated by terrorists to cause mass havoc.
Addressing these possibilities is unsurprisingly a one of the main topics of conversation when it comes to self-driving cars. In addition, developers will have to look out for a number of more mundane tricks, such as stickers that can interfere with cars’ image recognition systems. As the technology advances, they will become more and more able to protect cars from these attacks, but no system will ever be foolproof.
For those who see any risk as unacceptable, the most reassuring thing about the security of self-driving cars is also the most concerning: with modern technology, anything can be compromised. Banks, electrical grids, election systems, and even nuclear weapons are potential targets.
Not even driver-controlled cars are safe. In 2015, a pair of security researchers demonstrated that they could remotely hack a Jeep Cherokee via its entertainment system. If anything, the complexity of automated driving systems could make them more difficult to hack than normal cars.
A world where everything is online comes with risks. The only consolation is that security systems are usually advanced enough that there are very few people who have both the ability and motivation to successfully get past them.
Self-driving cars are still a new, so their security is an unknown factor. It is possible that a major breach in the near future could undermine public trust in automated vehicles, but for the moment there is no reason to think that they will necessarily be easier to compromise than regular cars. In any case, however, there is no question that cybersecurity will have to be a top priority as the technology develops.
Discussions about self-driving cars do not usually turn to their environmental impact. After all, aside from possibly reducing emissions by being less likely to cause traffic jams, they would not seem to have many immediate effects.
There are, however, a host of possibilities beyond the immediate. Scenarios developed by the US Department of Energy in 2014 predicted that the adoption of self-driving cars could cause anywhere between an 87% decrease to a 217% increase in fuel demand.
The chief concern is that as transportation becomes easier and more accessible, more people will drive for longer amounts of time. In particular, an increased tolerance for long commute times could lead them to live farther from their place of work. This would increase urban sprawl and lead to more, rather than less, congestion on the roads.
For this reason, researchers have advocated for “three transportation revolutions” – automation, electrification, and shared mobility. Electrification is the most obvious. If a car gets its energy from the electrical grid (preferably one which relies on clean energy) rather than gasoline, then its environmental impact will plummet.
Meanwhile, ride sharing – increasing the number people present in each vehicle, via carpooling or public transport – decreases total energy use and reduces the number of vehicles on the road at any given point, clearing traffic. This is differentiated from ride hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, which usually only transport one person at a time.
This triple revolution would require a series of government incentives and investments, especially in ride sharing. This would probably be easier in Europe and East Asia, where public transportation systems are more advanced, than in the United States, where personal transportation is the norm.
Liability and Morality
Even if they are safer than humans, self-driving cars will inevitably get into accidents. The only pedestrian death so far happened with a Uber test vehicle in Arizona in 2018, ending with a settlement between the company and the victim’s family.
But in the future, when self-driving cars are personally owned, the rules are unclear. Will the company that developed the car be held liable, or will the “driver” be forced to pay up?
In Britain, the 2018 Automated and Electric Vehicles Act sought to clear up this question. Under this framework, the human driver’s insurance will still be responsible for payments – a rule meant to provide certainty and encourage development in the sector.
However, as the technology advances and truly driverless cars become a reality, these rules may come into question. In addition, the British framework is not guaranteed to take hold in other jurisdictions.
Another question is what driverless cars should do when death is unavoidable. One famous hypothetical is if the car’s breaks fail and it must choose between driving into pedestrians or crashing into a wall and imperiling its passengers. What factors should it use in making this decision?
This has led to much ethical debate and spurred to the creation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s popular Moral Machine game. But others are skeptical of this question’s relevance, both because these types of scenarios are so rare in practice and because AI is not yet nearly advance enough to make such judgements.
Will Humans Still Be Allowed on the Road?
The takeover of self-driving cars will be slow. The technology is still new and expensive. The coming decades will see a mixture of autonomous vehicles and human drivers on the road. It will, however, eventually reach a point where they become just as accessible as normal cars.
This will spark a dilemma. If humans are so much less efficient and more prone to accident than machines, should they even be allowed to drive? This concern has been breached by think pieces and even touched upon by Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
This is another matter that will vary by polity. American culture, for example, places such a high sentimental value on driving that it is difficult to imagine politicians voting to ban the practice.
Still, pragmatic concerns could take over. For example, roads designed for use by autonomous vehicles may prove inaccessible to humans. Meanwhile, if self-driving cars really are much safer, the insurance costs of a human-driven car could become prohibitively high.
In any case, however, the theoretical point at which this will happen is so far removed from the present that it is impossible to make predictions. Of all the concerns with self-driving cars, the threat to human drivers may be one of the most attention-grabbing, but the last relevant.
How Far Along Are They?
While research into self-driving cars had been taking place decades previously, it was not until the 2010s that the technology truly took off. Now, countless companies are trying to get their foot in the door.
The most advanced technology available to consumers are programs such as Tesla autopilot, which can automate many parts of the process, but – despite incidents of distracted driving – still require the driver to pay attention to the road at all times.
But research into truly autonomous vehicles continues. Much of the testing so far has occurred on the west coast of the United States. In Phoenix, Arizona, Waymo – a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company – even offers autonomous taxi services.
Similarly, the start-up DeepBlue offers self-driving buses in China. Plans for similar services have been drafted in Britain and the European Union. Ride sharing and ride hailing may be where self-driving cars first get on the roads in many countries.
As with any new technology, predictions for the future vary wildly. It could advance rapidly or stall for years. Self-driving cars may be commonplace by the end of the decade, or they could still be little more than a curiosity by the end of the century. In any case, however, the size of their potential impact means that there is nothing to lose and much to gain by being prepared.