By Satpal Kaler
“What do you think you are doing?”
Detective Spooner disengages autopilot. Unable to control the high speed car roaring over 300MPH, he almost crashes into the wave of autonomous vehicles driving steadily through the highway.
Will Smith as Detective Spooner in I, Robot(2004)
The above scene is an excerpt from Alex Proyas’ I, Robot (2004) which subtly depicts human driving as a taboo. Autonomous vehicles are embedded into their daily lives that driving by hand seems absurd, and as the film reveals, due to a good reason. It is not impossible to imagine a future whereby driving licenses will be retracted and driving may almost completely be banned. Owing to the rise of A.I., it is no longer a question of if, but when.
What does this mean to the average individual in the street?
Cars have become such an integral part of how society functions that they are barely given any notice. Junkyards are piled with broken cars and second hand cars are on sale on seemingly every open lot. Going from point A to point B has never even been easier through history. What would have taken our ancestors months now takes us hours. Take a person’s car away and you will find them scrambling, rushing to get to the nearest train station while being perpetually late (although often that is the case with many even with cars). These boxy figures that are made of almost completely metal appear perfect, except they are not. Nearly 1.3 million people die yearly out of auto-accidents. Thousands of cars are sent out with manufacturing defects that further claim the lives of people, case in point the Takata Airbag Flaw.
We live in cities and suburbs that are modelled around the movement of cars. Roads, traffic lights, parks, and malls are all built to accommodate cars. In the last fifteen years there has been a spike in car ownership so much so that housing areas built before that are now loaded with cars to the brim. People try not to live too far away from the city because the commute to and fro is tiring to say the least. This is all due to change when autonomous vehicles replace current vehicles. It is a common misconception to think that assistive driving will replace current model of cars before completely autonomous vehicles take over, as assistive driving is barely any useful other than on highways and car makers have decided to run before they can walk.
Youtuber CCP Grey says that to call an autonomous vehicle a “car” would be limiting the scope of what they are actually capable of; akin to calling a car a “mechanical horse”. He uses the term autos as a shorthand to refer to autonomous vehicles. Autos have been in developments alongside regular cars since the get go. The first demonstrative systems date back to the 1920s and 30s and the earliest prototype for autos began appearing in 1980s. Regulation has always been a problem as the testing of autos require a human behind the wheel to take over during emergencies. The trend is changing directions however with California slowly warming up to test self-driving cars without a human driver, and this is merely the beginning. There is a lot to gain by taking away the wheel from humans, most obviously a significant reduction in traffic collisions and resultantly, death. While ethics and feasibility are a major concern, there has been very little big-scale discussion on how the shift would impact the day-to-day human lifestyle. At most there are quips from futurists and at worse conspiracies from scaremongers and this is understandable for the topic is highly speculative and everything eventually depends on the execution.
In the near future, traffic will no longer be a valid excuse for being late to work. There will no longer be a need to personally drive your kids to school either since they will be easily picked up by a friendly auto, presumably equipped with handy video-cameras for the concerned parents’ ease of mind. Disabled individuals will find that they have a new lease on life since mobility will be easy to access without requiring assistance from others. Friends out on a party night together will no longer need a designated driver who will spend the night drinking virgins and drunk driving may be crossed out completely. Suburbanization will become rampant and house prices in suburbs would rise owing to the fact that people would no longer need to live close to the city centre as commute will be much easier. As blue collar work becomes more specialised, people would be able to work while on the commute or start their day slightly earlier for a well-deserved sleep in the auto while they are on the way to work.
It is fairly optimistic to hope that a revolution in the auto industry would free up a lot of time allowing humans to use time to pursue better things. Malaysians currently spend about 250 million hours stuck in traffic jams, per year. However, as the industrial evolution proved, capitalism is always on the lookout for breaks like these and would do their best to stop them.
On a more positive note, the number of car accidents would fall steeply and if well-executed, it may possibly hit 0 and this would make streets a lot safer, potentially safer than air travel. Optimization of autos would be akin to having a public transport system for every individual. This would bring about major changes in the way we go through our day, and nights. For one streets would become a lot dimmer as streetlights are utilities that are kept alive for human drivers and when this is phased out, bright streets would no longer be a necessity and this would reduce the rate of light pollution. Starry night skies in the city may return. The traffic police department would require a complete overhaul or perhaps retrenchment and this would free up the police to manage other, more serious crimes. The cultural impact of driving would go away and the next couple of generations may be the last to view a driving license as a rite of passage into adulthood.
How an autonomous vehicle works
When autos are first rolled out it may serve as a status symbol. A fancy toy only for the rich but the gap would be bridged in a very small amount of time as the technology advances hence a dystopian-esque outlook where people are discriminated by their auto (or lack thereof) will not be that widespread. There will however be a huge disparity between countries that adapt to this technology quick enough and the ones that are left behind. One of the challenges for an impactful rollout is mapping. Autos would require much more precise mapping for them to function at a maximum capacity and cities are at an advantage here with their open policies and comfortable infrastructure. Cities like New York, Tokyo, Amsterdam and Singapore would find themselves on the radar almost instantly while distant rural quarters will take a while to upgrade. For example, the rollout of Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana is still in its infancy in third world countries despite having been on the market for a number of years. These are hiccups but not unsolvable ones as satellite imaging has never been better than before and with the eventual revolution in GPS technology (potentially quantum positioning system), these problems would go away within the decade after autos take to the streets.
Traffic lights and intersections are a mode of communication between current drivers and even this is not as effective as we would like it to be. The moment the light turns green, the first car accelerates and then the second and so on. Humans by default are incapable of efficient multitasking. A self-driving car would be, at all times, connected with the cars within its radius, collecting data from each car on its speed, acceleration, position and etc. Not only that, it will also be calculating if any of the vehicle would be crossing its path while taking note of the car coming from the opposite lane while it is also tracking its own position, keeping check of the humidity and temperature, calculating the right speed for the incoming bend. A human would fumble under so much weight but not a machine. The moment the light at the stop would turn green, all the autos would accelerate simultaneously increasing the number of vehicles that will pass through. While it may be hard to imagine, traffic lights and intersections may completely be phased out owing to the knack of autos to communicate with each other.
A simulation of an auto calculating its distance relative to other vehicles
The benefits of having an auto in city is tremendous but this does not discount what they can do on a highway. Autos on highway would form a platoon of vehicles moving towards a destination. Autos heading to the same destination would form contingents together and move towards their destination in complete synchronization in a move called “platooning”. “Currently, maximum controlled-access highway throughput or capacity according to the U.S. Highway Capacity Manual is about 2,200 passenger vehicles per hour per lane, with about 5% of the available road space is taken up by cars. According to a study by researchers at Columbia University, autonomous cars could increase capacity by 273% (~8,200 cars per hour per lane). The study also estimated that with 100% connected vehicles using vehicle-to-vehicle communication, capacity could reach 12,000 passenger vehicles per hour (up 445% from 2,200 pc/hr per lane) traveling safely at 120 km/h (75 mph) with a following gap of about 6 m (20 ft) of each other.” (E. Ackerman, 2012)
Assisted driving vehicles pose a lot more safety concerns than completely autonomous vehicles. The reaction time for humans is still slow despite assisted by fancy sensors and humans tend to not pay attention to the vehicle when driving under assistance thus negating all the helpful effects that may be. Before a mass rollout of autonomous cars, there will be a decent number of assisted driving vehicles that would allow complete control of the cars on highways (Level 3 autonomy) and while this would be an exciting prospect for blue collar workers in the transport line, the rate of accidents are bound to go up as humans would not be able to intervene timely during accidents. Assisted driving vehicles currently seem a bigger ethical concern in contrast to autos which is why car manufacturers are only developing this tech as a precursor, not for a major rollout.
Shortly after rollout of autos, transport jobs will go extinct. Films and TV shows have been predicting this sci-fi future from eons, most recently in appearing in Marvel’s Logan (2017) in the background where huge trucks are zooming on busy highways without a driving compartment. This would create an uproar as the transport industry is currently the means to bread and butter to a huge number of people across the globe. The people that are retrenched would find it difficult to assimilate into other jobs as these other jobs would also be threatened by AI. This would not only impact individuals but also the country as the transport industry is probably a major contributor to the GDP of a nation.
Professional or freelancing drivers that currently pick us up in taxis or Ubers would be a thing of the past. Autos may become state controlled as in its infancy there would a strong need of support from governments to authorize autos. City governments would dispatch autos for individuals and while this is comforting knowing that there will proper regulation in its execution it may also lead to a massive privacy invasion seeing that the government would be actively tracking our position throughout the day. Vehicle insurance would require a complete restructuring as it may not be profitable for insurance companies when there are no longer any collisions on the road. It also creates complications; if the auto is to malfunction due to a software failure, is the driver still liable?
It is safe to say that car ownership will plummet drastically. There will no longer be a need for a chunk of metal parked in the streets that require constant costly maintenance when you can book an auto from an app and be on your way in less than five minutes. The type of vehicles that are being produced mimic our social structure. A quick observation of everyday road users would show that most drivers drive by themselves to work. “Private ownership was preferred over car sharing by a 3 to 1 margin” (J. Zmud, I. N. Sener, J. Wagner, 2016). Despite entrepreneurs and brands have tried to incentivise car-pooling, the trend has never really kicked off. Driverless pods or autopods would potentially become the prominent vehicle in the city owing to this trait. These are single seating autos that would be the weekday vehicle for almost everyone.
Driverless LUTZ Pathfinder: The autopod shares streets of Buckinghamshire town with cyclists and pedestrians, reaching speeds of 15mph
City living would become much more efficient and safer. Proper coordination would free up parking spaces to be repurposed into parks and coupled with renewable energy that is less potent, already great cities will be on their way to become some of the best places to live in. Taking into account there will be no room for a human error, speed limits would be slowly scaled up and this would cut travel time by a bigger margin as time progresses.
A major challenge in the widespread implementation of autos would be cyber-security. Current encryption methods would falter when autos are rolled out on a big scale and this poses a big security issue. Terrorist groups would be able to hack into the system and create havoc by creating pile ups remotely. Influential people particularly would be at high risk. Politicians, actors, businessman could be easily kidnapped without involving direct physical involvement. An auto could be loaded with explosives and be driven into the city centre and detonated. These are only some horrific examples of the possibilities if cyber-security does not match the pace of autonomous vehicle development.
Where would normal cars, our current existing cars, fit in this futuristic world? Cars will become a novelty item the same way we treat horses and existing classic cars. There may be a spike in sports car racing as it would be seen as a highly professional job, relative to the everyday non-driver, similar to the way horse racing is currently viewed by the majority. Classic models of current cars would become a trade material between enthusiasts at a much bigger price tag but by far and wide, normal cars would go extinct. A ban on driving would become inevitable as driving would be seen as a morally wrong thing to do; a biological human barely capable of multitasking, with slow reaction time and a short attention span, given complete control over a 1500 kilogram machine that is able to kill in the case of an accident? No thank you. Critics would argue that it is imperative that the right to drive be taken away. Even if there is no legal move to take away the wheel from man, future autos would probably not have a steering wheel to allow better customization of the car’s interior and to avoid any form of human intervention once autonomous systems becomes infallible. These systems are in fact already being developed as can be witnessed in the Uber vs. Google case.
Self-driving cars are a sign of good news for the upper middle class and above as they would most definitely be able to adapt and afford this coming technological revolution however the lower strata of society would be caught in a tricky situation acclimatising due to the financial barrier. The growth of autos is directly proportional to the growth of AI and this would adversely affect the livelihood of the lower classes. A case study on the public perceptions of self-driving cars carried out by USC Berkeley summarizes it aptly; this technology could transform the very interaction between society and its transportation system in ways that are scarcely imagined. Autos are coming a lot sooner than we think with BMW and Ford promising fully autonomous cars by 2021 for the public consumption, and as yet we are not adequately prepared for a systemic overhaul that is required to fill in the gaps. This article merely highlights some effects autos would have on our society as is but it is barely a glimpse into our potential future.