Self driving cars are quickly becoming reality.
Self driving cars are quickly becoming a reality, prompting consumers to ask tough questions. Via Google Self Driving Car Project.
The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do. -B.F. Skinner

Self driving cars used to be a ‘Jetsons-esque’ thing of the future...and that future is quickly approaching, with many companies currently working on models (including Tesla, Google, and BMW among them). With so many new, self driving cars soon to be entering the market, though, consumers have raised concerns about the ways in which these cars operate and how tough decisions are made, particularly following the fatal crash of a Tesla driver while the car was operating in autopilot. While Tesla holds that the car’s systems were not fully developed and not meant to be used on autopilot at the time of the crash, consumers are still beginning to show signs of worry and want to know: how do self driving cars work? How safe are they? And who’s most at risk in a self driving car accident?

How do Self Driving Cars Work?

Self driving cars use sophisticated sensors to operate.
Self driving cars use tons of sophisticated, far-reaching sensors to follow traffic rules and avoid accidents. Via Extreme Tech.

It might seem like magic, or a prop out of a sci-fi movie, but self driving cars mostly take advantage of technology we use everyday. From front- and rear-facing cameras and radar to ultrasonic sensors and GPS, the cars rely on sense their surroundings, which a computer synthesizes and analyzes to direct the car’s actions. The sensors can differentiate between different types of obstacles, steer out of the way, or apply the brakes if necessary.

Safety Concerns: the “Trolley Problem”

The trolley problem is a theoretical exercise in ethics.
While this might seem silly, the theoretical 'trolley problem' is an exercise in ethics that takes on new importance with the advent of self driving cars. Via Youtube.

One of safety concerns being discussed boils down to what experts call the “trolley problem”. It goes something like this:

Say you have cart in a mine that becomes detached from the rest and is barrelling down the track towards a group of 5 people. The operator has a choice: divert the car to a different track where only one person will be hit and probably killed, or do nothing, leaving the 5 to be hit and, probably, killed. What should the operator do?

You can manipulate this scenario any number of different ways - maybe the one person (about to be hit, rather than this operator) is a toddler and the five are all eighty years old, or the five knew they were risking their lives and the one didn’t, or the 5 might not all die and the one is sure to perish on impact. At the core, the issue is not about the specifics but instead deals with the ethical dilemma of inaction versus action, of placing value on human life to weigh decisions. Not a comfortable dilemma for anyone to deal with.

The “Trolley Problem” In Real Life

Safety is a big concern when cars operate without human intervention.
Though the sensors are sophisticated, self driving cars can't change individual choices that create unsafe situations. Via Global Auto Park.

While it might not be a comfortable thought process, even a hypothetical one, it particularly plagues the minds of those considering self driving cars. As drivers, we rely as much on instinct and intuition as we do on logical thought processes, especially when making split-second decisions in emergency situations. Self driving cars rely completely on computerized logic that’s been coded into the system by the developers configuring the cars. So, when presented with a similar ethical dilemma - for instance, hitting a jaywalker in the street or swerving into a tree - it feels pretty uncomfortable to leave that decision up to a computer and have absolutely no control over it. Humans are generally inclined toward self-preservation, and potential passengers in self driving cars don’t like to think they might be buying a car that would sacrifice them over a stranger jaywalking at night.

What the Experts Say

Reading while driving might soon be possible, according to the experts!
Experts are still hopeful about the availability of self driving cars in the near future, even taking consumer safety concerns into account. Via Gizmodo.

Fortunate for all of us thinking how cool it would be to own a self driving car in a few years, the experts have weighed in with their take on the dilemma: it’s one they like talking about but have never really seen. With the advanced computerized systems of these self driving cars, it’s much more likely that the car would sense a jaywalker and apply the brakes before any danger (and similarly avoid the danger in other situations). They’ve been presented with no ethical dilemma where a judgment call needed to be coded into the system...which not only helps allay consumer fears but also implies that self driving cars may in fact be safer than cars are now.

Other Concerns

There are still kinks to work out before self driving cars are available on a broad scale.
Self driving cars might not be a thing of the distant future anymore, but there are still some issues to work out before they take over the streets. Via Extreme Tech.

While the “trolley problem” and similar types of ethical dilemmas might not actually be concerns at this point when it comes to self driving cars, there are some other issues that self driving cars need further help with:

  • Bridges pose a unique problem for self driving cars
  • They have trouble sensing in inclement weather (snow, for instance)
  • They also have trouble when they can’t ‘see’ lane markings (they can’t just ‘assume’ where the faded yellow lines should be, like we can)
  • Cities are much tougher than driving on the highway
  • Along with intuition, we as drivers can signal to other drivers with a nod, a hand, or the horn; self driving cars can’t communicate like that (which poses a much larger problem when self driving cars have to interact with human-driven cars)

With the advances in technology and so much effort put into correcting these issues, manufacturers are incredibly optimistic about the future of self driving cars.