Get ready to ditch your car—not for some revolutionary advancement in transportation, but simply for someone else’s. The Detroit-based automotive giant General Motors announced early this January that it is investing a whopping 500 million dollars in Lyft, a ride-hailing company bested in size only by its more popular and powerful rival, Uber. General Motors’ goal is to build an army of robot (i.e. driverless) cars that can get you where you want as quickly and efficiently as possible at your beck and call.
The technology behind Lyft is not all that radical. Most modern cars already have the ability to see what’s around them with rearview cameras. They have the power to hear and speak, through smart radios and media players, and they can even feel, using a plethora of sensors and gauges. What your car does not have is brainpower. At least, not on the scale required for real-time driving autonomy. Advances in computer engineering, however, have allowed us to jam even more of these increasingly-powerful metallic brains inside smaller and tighter spaces. It is now possible for the next generation of cars to make bigger decisions based on senses of sight, hearing, and touch.
Whenever anyone comes out with a new autonomous technology, concerns begin to arise about how much control the machines really have. Although the idea of cars enslaving humanity seems far-fetched, there are a number of issues to worry about. On the moral end, if a crash is inevitable, how will these cars determine the best course of action? What is the algorithm allowing for a car to decide between hitting person A or person B?
On the practical end, power consumption is a big deal. If these cars are thinking harder, will they require more power to keep up? Increased power consumption would both drive up costs and hurt the environment. And, if different companies produce different cars, will those cars be able to communicate effectively with one another on the road?
Yes, there is good reason for one’s concern over the implementation of “thinking” cars. But if this technology can be realized, there are some impressive positives to be had. The American Automobile Association (AAA) reports that the annual cost for owning and maintaining a car in 2015 was 8,698 dollars and could be as high as 10,649 dollars depending on the type of car owned. A network of self-driving cars would eliminate the need to own one yourself, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime. Also, a rise in the popularity of ridesharing would decrease the number of cars on the road, easing traffic and positively impacting the environment. As for safety, if the majority of cars on the road are able to constantly communicate with each other, the likelihood of any kind of serious accident significantly decreases. Humans can be careless, whereas computers are always alert—they just need to be taught how to drive.
Although the public might be skeptical about the rise of self-driving cars, they are coming whether we are ready or not. General Motors is not the only corporation to dip its toes into the pool of self-driving technology. Ford has partnered with Google, and Apple with Tesla, in attempts to gain footing in the race to dominate this up-and-coming market. These companies are titans of both the automotive and technology industries, and if they set their sights on self-driving cars then that is what we’re going to get.