An emerging technological innovation in the modern world is the driverless car. This sample expository essay explores this development in greater detail. The essay will have five main parts. ‘
- An overview of the relevant technology
- The extent to which the technology’s development and implementation
- The extent to which driverless cars could improve public safety
- A case study of a specific recent crash of a driverless car and potential implications for the future
- The moral ramifications of driverless cars and how the technology affects people’s consciousness
Driverless car technology
It is worth discussing the specific technology that is in question when discussing driverless cars. The first point that needs to be made is that a driverless car is not, in fact, a car with no person inside it, but rather simply a car that needs no person to manually drive it. The main idea is that the car will drive itself to its appointed destination, while the people within the car will be able to direct their attention to other activities than driving.
This could be done due to the fact that such a car, when equipped with appropriate sensors and also linked up to a reliable global maps interface, would be able to navigate its own way through streets and roads, without the need of human interference to get it to where it has been directed to go. In the meanwhile, the people within the car can attend to whatever business most compels them, without spending time or attention on actually driving the car from one specific geographical place to another.
If driverless car technology were to proliferate, this could introduce potentially radical changes to the very concepts of electric car design itself. As Belam has suggested, for example:
“For the last century, the interior design of a car has been entirely optimized around one person with feet on pedals and hands on a wheel, with their eyes on the road and their need to have all controls within easy reach. But if you don’t need a human in charge, then the very layout of the seats in a car can be fundamentally reorganized” (paragraph 10).
In other words, the very concept of the car as people currently understand it revolves around the basic idea that an individual human being would need to drive the car in an effective way from one geographical location to another. If this assumption were to be canceled, then there is perhaps no telling in what ways the basic design of cars could evolve over the coming times. But this train of thought is, of course, based on the assumption that driverless cars will proliferate and become a dominant technology in the near future. It is thus worth examining the prospects and extent of driverless cars thus far in greater detail.
Implementation of autonomous cars
Although the phenomenon of driverless cars has made the news as of late, it may be wise to take a step back and consider the extent to which the widespread implementation of such a technology will be feasible within the context of the near future. Litman, for example, has summarized a rigorous analysis of the matter in the following way:
“some benefits, such as independent mobility for affluent non-drivers, may begin in the 2020s and 2030s, but most impacts, including reduced traffic and parking congestion . . . will only be significant when autonomous vehicles become common and affordable, probably in the 2040s and 2060s, and some benefits may require prohibiting human-driven vehicles or certain roadways, which could take longer” (1).
In other words, the full implementation of driverless vehicles, if it ever happens, will likely take decades from now to achieve.
Moreover, the quotation above calls attention to the potential incompatibility of driverless vehicles and old-fashioned vehicles on the same roadways. This is primarily due to reasons that could perhaps only be called psychological and emotional in nature. For example, road rage is a serious phenomenon among drivers, as Herman has analyzed in great depth: this consists of human drivers essentially losing emotional control and behaving in aggressive and irrational ways with their vehicles.
A driverless car, obviously, could never experience road rage; it will simply do what it has been programmed to do, in as efficient a way as possible. If a driverless car were to encounter a standard vehicle with a driver in a state of road rage, then it is unclear what the result would be. At the very least, the prediction can be made that no mathematical algorithms on the part of the driverless car would truly be able to predict how the situation will in fact actually develop.
Improvements to public safety
One of the main advantages of the full implementation of driverless cars would be that such implementation could help improve public safety. As Knight has pointed out:
“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that more than 90 percent of road crashes involve human error, a figure that has led some experts to predict that autonomous driving will reduce the number of accidents on the road by a similar percentage” (paragraph 6).
The said source has indicated that 1.2 million people a year across the world die in automobile accidents and that such accidents cost the United States $300 billion a year. The widespread implementation of driverless vehicles could possibly help bring this significant public safety threat to an end, insofar as it would theoretically eliminate the entire element of human error from the roadways.
Case study of an autonomous vehicle crash
Driving a vehicle carries its own risks, but self-driving cars have added safety issues. Recently, a driverless car developed by Google got into a crash. To an extent, this has had the effect of shaking the public’s confidence in this kind of technology in general. This is Davies has summarized the beginning of the matter:
“Google wrote that its autonomous car, a Lexus SUV, was driving itself down El Camino Real in Mountain View. It moved to the right lane to make a right turn onto Castro Street, but stopped when it detected sand bags sitting around storm drains and blocking its path” (paragraph 2).
In its attempt to navigate this situation, this driverless car ended up running into a bus. The relevant reports have determined that the accident was, in fact, the responsibility of the driverless car. To skeptics of the technology in general, this could only seem like evidence that the whole idea of driverless cars as such is a mistake that will be unlikely to improve public safety in any way.
New technology comes with risks
On the other hand, however, some stakeholders have insisted that accidents with driverless cars (and especially in the test phases) are surely to be expected; that such cars should not be held to a standard of perfection; and that the single accident in question has no real implications for the technology of driverless cars as a whole. As Bolton has reported:
“The US transport secretary Anthony Foxx has said it was ‘not a surprise’ that a Google self-driving car crashed into a bus…Foxx admitted that there was ‘no question’ that the technology has the potential to cause disruption, but said it could also reduce 80 per cent of the car crashes that occur.”
In other words, it would be unreasonable to expect driverless cars to live up to some abstract safety standard of perfection. The real point, rather, is a relative one. Driverless cars will surely still cause accidents on occasion, and the actual number that matters is whether they will cause fewer accidents than what is currently caused as a result of human error.
Regardless of the causes or dangers, companies aren’t ready to give up their foothold in the autonomous vehicle industry. Major companies have announced plans to develop these cars and have even started releasing some features to the public. Even car rentals and taxi services have joined the fad. The ride-hail giant Uber announced it would expand its service by offering self-driving cars in some markets.
Moral ramifications for people who drive driverless cars
The concept of driverless cars brings with it a few important moral ramifications. One of the main issues here consists of an actual human being’s perception and prioritization within the context of a hazardous situation, versus the same for a driverless car. As Kirkpatrick has written:
“should an unavoidable crash situation arise, a driverless car’s method of seeing and identifying potential objects or hazards is different and less precise than the human eye-brain connection, which likely will introduce moral dilemmas with respect to how an autonomous vehicle should react” (paragraph 5).
At a more philosophical question, it is also perhaps worth asking questions about the extent to which the whole world is becoming increasingly automated and driven by technology. Heidegger, for example, suggested a long time ago that technology in the modern world is such that the imperatives of technology are increasingly supplanting truly human motivations, with technology thus coming to seem as though it has a will of its own, independent from actual human beings.
He also suggested that this dominance of technology facilitates an “enframing” attitude to the world that leads people to see the world as something primarily to be efficiently used, and not holistically experienced. The very concept of the driverless car clearly represents a furtherance of exactly this kind of attitude and logic.
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a discussion of the emerging technology of driverless cars. The essay has described the technology itself, the extent of the implementation of the technology thus far, the likely results of implementation, a case of the technology having functioned badly, and the moral implications of the implementation of the technology.
The main point that has emerged here is that the widespread implementation of driverless cars would surely result in a significant improvement of public safety, insofar as it would eliminate all accidents caused by human error. However, the aesthetic and moral consideration has also been put forth here about how much autonomous power they want to grant to technology as such.
Belam, Martin. “Driverless Cars Are the Future. We’re Living in the Motorised Middle Ages.” Guardian. 2 Mar. 2016. Web. 14 Mar. 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/02/driverless-cars-future-motorised-middle-ages.
Bolton, Doug. “Google Driverless Car Crash Was ‘Not a Surprise’, US Transport Security Anthony Foxx Says.” Independent. 14 Mar. 2016. Web. 14 Mar. 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/google-driverless-self- driving-autonomous-car-crash-bus-anthony-foxx-a6930216.html?
Davies, Alex. “Google’s Self-Driving Car Caused Its First Crash.” Wired. 29 Feb. 2016. 14 Mar. 2016. http://www.wired.com/2016/02/googles-self-driving-car-may-caused-first-crash/.
Heidegger, Martin. The Question concerning Technology, and Other Essays. New York: Harper Perennial, 2013. Print.
Herman, Nancy J. “Road Rage: An Exploratory Analysis.” Michigan Sociological Review 13 (1999): 65-79. Print.
Kirkpatrick, Keith. “The Moral Challenges of Driverless Cars. Communications of the ACM 58.8 (2015). Web. 14 Mar. 2016. http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2015/8/189836-the-moral-challenges-of-driverless-cars/fulltext.
Knight, Will. “Driverless Cars Are Further Away than You Think.” MIT Technology Review. 22 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 Mar. 2016. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/520431/driverless-cars-are-further-away-than-you-think.
Litman, Todd. Autonomous Vehicle Implementation Predictions. Victoria Transport Policy Institute, 2015. Web. 15 Mar. 2016. http://www.vtpi.org/avip.pdf.