Driverless cars rely primarily on preprogrammed route data, so they don’t obey things such as temporary traffic lights. They also have problems figuring out when objects such as strewn papers are harmless, so they may swerve for no reason.

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No: Driverless cars face gargantuan hurdles before going anywhere

By Whitt Flora
Special to Tribune News Service

A NATIONWIDE network of self-driving cars whisking commuters to work is a pleasant utopian vision, but getting there would almost rival the Manhattan Project in terms of complexity.

Self-driving cars have been in development for years, and their backers claim the vehicles will be ready to dominate the car market in the near future.

Having a nation of commuters use these vehicles, they claim, will reduce traffic congestion, improve highway safety and make even the far suburbs more convenient places to live.

Fully automated cars could make up nearly 10 percent of global vehicle sales a year, but not until 2035, the Boston Consulting Group has predicted.

But before those suburban dwellers can order such cars, some gargantuan problems with safety, technology, cost, acceptance, federal bureaucrats and other drivers must be overcome.

The technology used in those cars creates serious safety problems, and huge improvements must be made before they can safely handle streets.

Developing fail-safe software for completely driverless cars would require rethinking how software is designed, some experts say. They note that the software in phones, laptops and other devices is not designed to operate for extended periods without crashing or freezing — and those errors would be deadly in a car.

Also, driverless cars rely primarily on preprogrammed route data, so they don’t obey things such as temporary traffic lights. They also have problems figuring out when objects such as strewn papers are harmless, so they may swerve for no reason.

The vehicles simply can’t deal with the unexpected adventures that fill everyday life. Until the cars can self-drive at all times, humans are going to have to be ready to resume control.

Meanwhile, as an article in The New York Times pointed out, Google’s self-driving car has already run into another perplexing safety problem: human drivers.

The story recounts that when one of Google’s self-driving cars came to a crosswalk, it did what it was supposed to do by slowing to allow a pedestrian to cross. However, that action prompted the human “safety driver” to apply the brakes. The pedestrian emerged unhurt, but Google’s car was hit from behind.

Meanwhile, developing a nationwide self-driving-car system would require countless amounts of effort and money. Currently the maps for Google’s self-driving cars have only been designed to handle a few thousand miles of road. To make a national system work, a company would have to maintain and update data on millions of miles of roads.

In another area, the development of these vehicles inevitably means more state and federal regulation — the enemy of innovation — and regulators are notoriously risk-averse.

And there’s a potential privacy problem: Each car’s computer would store massive amounts of highly personal data that federal agencies, with their penchant for spying on us, might well grab to use against drivers.

Of course, nobody knows the cost of totally self-driving cars. However, one report says cars with the ability to drive anywhere with no human input would add some $10,000 to the sticker price, at least in the first decade the technology is on the market.

There’s also the problem of getting people to accept them. Cars aren’t just transportation; they reflect our personalities and tastes.

It’ll be hard to get someone wanting to zoom down the highway in a fast open convertible to meekly accept riding as a passive passenger in a computer-controlled vehicle.

Whitt Flora is an independent journalist who covered the White House for The Columbus Dispatch and was chief congressional correspondent for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.


Yes: Autonomous vehicles will improve commutes, reduce the need for a car

By Justin Haskins
Special to Tribune News Service

MORE than at any time in world history, technological advancements are having an immediate and significant effect on the way people are living their lives.

Just 30 years ago, few would have imagined it would be possible for every person to own their very own pocket-size super computer on which he or she could do virtually anything, from finding a date to buying a house.

In the same way the internet and smartphones were once exotic technologies few knew anything about, the driverless car stands today as one of the society-shifting innovations that has the potential to become an everyday reality in the not-so-distant future.

In April, Volkswagen’s Johann Jungwirth predicted the first self-driving cars could appear on the market as early as 2019. In May, General Motors’ Richard Holman said driverless cars could become a reality in 2020. In August, Ford said it would have a fully driverless vehicle — no steering wheel, no pedals — on the road within five years.

State governments have already started preparing for the new technology’s imminent arrival.

California, Florida, Michigan and Nevada have recently passed laws governing their use, and Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society reports more than a dozen other states are considering similar legislation.

Traditionally, technological innovation puts more products in the hands of consumers, but many industry experts predict driverless cars will actually limit private car ownership.

Instead of spending thousands of dollars on a new car, the tech-savvy consumer of the future will open an app on a computer or smartphone and call for his or her very own driverless chauffeur.

In making its announcement last month, Ford said its vehicle will be specifically designed for commercial mobility services, like taxi companies, and will be available in high volumes. Ford predicted personal ownership of self-driving cars will come later.

Not only does this technology have the potential to radically change the way people spend time with their families and commute to and from work, it will very likely alter where and how people live.

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2015 that one poll showed as many as two-thirds of young people would choose suburban living over life in the city.

If Americans still prefer the suburbs over urban city centers, why are so many choosing to live in cities?

While a number of factors are responsible for the shift from suburbs to cities that has occurred over the past two decades, one of the most important considerations is the increasingly globalized economy.

As emerging financial and technological industries have grown throughout the United States, international centers of tech-commerce have developed in regions such as California’s Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle in North Carolina and in major urban areas such as Chicago and New York.

Professionals who want to work in these growing fields or in related industries often need to be close to the action.

Driverless cars have the potential to change the way Americans think about where they live. No longer will people need to pay the high rents, taxes and fees common in urban centers to work comfortably in those cities.

While traffic congestion may still be an issue for many, driving to work in the future could look and feel more like sitting at home on the couch watching a favorite show on Netflix.

And if that’s what the future looks like, who wouldn’t mind spending more time commuting?

Justin Haskins is the executive editor of the Heartland Institute, a conservative and libertarian public-policy think tank.