Driverless cars are closer than you think and intend to change our lives in ways we haven’t yet imagined. By Noelle Faulkner
It appears we’ve hit peak outsourcing. We outsource our social lives via a scrolling feed; our fact retention, leaving no need for memory recall; our shopping; we don’t even have to turn our own lights on thanks to the help of personal assistants such as Google Home and Amazon Echo. So it was only natural that we started outsourcing our travel time, too.
As you read this, Waymo, formerly known as the Google car, is driving itself around Arizona, without a human to guide it; Volvo is working on fulfilling a 24,000-strong fleet of XC90 SUVs equipped with fully autonomous technology ordered by Uber; Intel, BMW and Mobileye have joined forces to develop a driverless model; Uber competitor Lyft is working with start-up Nutonomy and offering human-free rides around Boston; Tesla is strengthening its already impressive autopilot software and revolutionising the trucking industry; French company Navya will soon test its “Autonoms” in Perth; and Ford, Audi, Toyota, Nissan and Mercedes-Benz are all working towards having autonomous vehicles ready to hit the road by 2021. Experts are calling it the fourth industrial revolution, which will not only see AI-powered cars and public transport, but also robots transforming industries that once could only rely on human labour, decision-making skills and a certain level of humanity.
“There’s a lot of talk about ethics and the social effect,” says Dr Nikolaos Mavridis, founder and director of the Interactive Robots And Media Lab, noting the latter has more to do with the loss of jobs and social impact of fully autonomous industries. “Usually, one of those discussions is around the possibility of policemen robots or military robots. My main concern is whether or not a machine should be allowed to make a legal decision and whether or not this might be a better decision than a human would make.”
This talk has also led to a debate surrounding the safety of driverless cars – a dangerous idea that, when presented with a live-or-die situation, the car must calculate the best outcome. “The arguments right now do show that machines will have a much better horizon for making some decisions in their problem-solving, they can process more information and be much more rational,” Mavridis says.
Online, the noise among experts and internet keyboard warriors surrounding the iconic “trolley problem” (killing one person to save five) is deafening. The concern: what if your car’s “best decision” meant killing you to save a group? How does a robot put value on a life? Many vehicles on the market already have pedestrian-detection capabilities that can distinguish between a person and a pole, with even more specific facial-recognition technology in the works for both the driver and surrounds. What if that meant AI could place value on different pedestrians in an accident? Say, a senior citizen versus a toddler? Whose life is worth more to a luxury sedan? And down the dark, dystopian rabbit hole we go.
But in reality, you can rest easy: the facial-recognition technology is more likely to be used by Uber or a taxi to recognise you as a passenger, like a suggested Facebook tag or an iPhone X lock, and makers are more or less attacking those highly situational and nuanced moral riddles with the approch that the car is there to protect the occupants first.
Driverless cars will be a reality by 2021, if not sooner. And we already have some impressive semi-autonomous technology available – systems that can process their surroundings, the road markings and speed limits. If the trajectory continues, in just a few years we’ll theoretically be able to get in a chic, possibly steering wheel-free car and work, drink cocktails, do our makeup, stare at our phones, read a book or take a nap. These cars will park, navigate traffic and recognise us standing on the kerb in the rain. They’ll change how we road-trip, how we think about our commute, how we spend our free time and may even completely transform the structure of a workday.
However, with the science of robotics rooted in data analytics, AI needs information to analyse in order to work to its best intention and to learn. So until that day comes when every car on the road is autonomous and talking to each other in robotic harmony, we’ll still be sitting in traffic jams. But we’ll just be able to multi-task a lot more while we do, and sooner than we think...