Wednesday, October 5, 2016

How long before vehicles drive themselves?

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to land on the moon. It was a technological feat that seemed impossible. Fast forward less than 50 years later, and we are all carrying around mobile phones that pack more computing power than the Apollo Guidance Computer.

According to Moore’s Law, the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits doubles every 18-24 months – i.e. computers get twice as powerful every two years. It is the exponential growth of technology that both excites and frightens us.

What is so exciting about rapid technological growth is all the cool stuff we get: smartphones, tablets, Bluetooth, the internet, improved fuel efficiency, etc. What is frightening to us is the danger of technology taking over and/or being used negligently or maliciously.

Autonomous vehicles highlight the good and bad of new technology.

We can argue the effects on industry all day long, but the idea that cars are close to driving themselves is pretty awesome. The problem is that even though we are closer to driverless cars than ever before, we are still a long way from it. However, too many people do not understand that.

A recent report by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation in Canada reveals how misinformed many people are regarding autonomous vehicles. Nearly two-thirds of respondents claimed to be familiar with AV technology. However, 1 in 6 said driving an AV would make it unnecessary to pay attention to the road, 24 percent would be more likely to drive tired, 10 percent would actually take a nap, and 9 percent would drink and drive.

Anyone who is legitimately familiar with AVs can tell you why this is dangerous. AVs only take over the driving function in certain situations (on the highway) and only in certain circumstances (favorable weather, light traffic). Even then, the driver has to be 100 percent attentive and ready to take over at any moment. Yet too many people believe that we skipped straight from standard motor vehicles to the Jetsons.

Correction: If you watch the Jetsons intro, George clearly has his hands on the steering device. Cartoons from the ‘60s were more realistic about vehicles of the future than some people are about vehicles of the present.

Technology advances at an exponential rate, but there are still limitations. As Land Line reported earlier this year, consumer groups and auto safety advocates urged the White House to slow down on autonomous technology. As the fatal crash involving an autonomous Tesla showed, we are putting too much faith in technology that is not quite ready yet.

Sometimes technology advances faster than our brains and society. Too many people still don’t understand the repercussions of social media. Some of our brains still cannot grasp the idea of putting your thoughts out to billions of people in the matter of seconds. In some aspects, society has regressed as a result. Oddly, our brains are moving faster than AV technology. We think it can do more than it can rather than the other way around.

It takes years, sometimes decades, for technology to go from its infancy to mass market daily use. Autonomous vehicles are still in their infancy. It will be many years before vehicles become completely driverless. Safety is dependent on this realization.