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Are Autonomous Vehicles a Secure Future for Our Roads?

In light of Google’s 
recent investment in Oxa, a developer of autonomous driving software, the interest in autonomous vehicles has sky-rocketed. So too, however, has the discussion around safety concerns. Mark Trimbee – CEO of personalised number plate provider Regtransfers – delves into the growing interest in self-driving cars and its implications, particularly focusing on safety.

Self-driving cars have fascinated tech geeks and driving enthusiasts for decades. Yet, what once was the stuff of science fiction is steadily approaching reality. The growing interest in automated vehicles, coupled with technological advancements over the past decade, suggests we might not be too far away from seeing them out on the road and on the streets outside our homes.

It’s an exciting time in tech at the moment, but it’s essential to address the safety concerns associated with fully autonomous vehicles – and of course, there are concerns to consider.

Reports from last year highlighted approximately 400 accidents involving self-driving cars. More recently, a pedestrian in San Francisco found themselves trapped beneath an autonomous vehicle. While investigations later revealed that the automated vehicle wasn’t the primary cause of the incident, such headlines beg the question of whether driverless cars offer a genuinely safe mode of transportation for the future.

The Safety Standards of Autonomous Vehicles

Fully autonomous vehicles remain a rarity, yet they are already making appearances on our streets. Moreover, modern cars increasingly incorporate various automation features into their systems. As technology progresses, these features may eventually cover all aspects of a vehicle, essentially making every seat in the car a passenger seat.

At present, self-driving cars represent uncharted territory. Therefore, when accidents involving automated vehicles occur, it raises doubts about whether a human driver might have averted them. All the same, it’s worth reminding ourselves that car accidents aren’t a new phenomenon, and certainly aren’t exclusive to automated vehicles.

Safety on the Road

Recent statistics from 2022 in Great Britain reveal 1,695 fatalities and 136,022 casualties of varying degrees due to road traffic accidents. Human drivers are prone to accidents, and if self-driving cars can eventually surpass human safety levels, it could lead to safer roads and fewer casualties—a desirable outcome. Still, removing control of vehicles from human drivers, who possess the ability to think, react, and make judgment calls to developing situations, understandably raises concerns, especially in these early stages of AI development.

The Challenges

At this moment in time, it may be easier for most to see the potential risks and challenges posed by self-driving cars:

Security Concerns: The proliferation of smart products, applications, and wearable technology already poses security challenges. The vulnerability to hacking becomes more significant with fully automated vehicles relying entirely on computer systems, especially if many of these vehicles share the same network.

Initial Costs: In the UK, a self-driving car costs upwards of £50,000 (legal only for testing on UK roads), placing it beyond most people’s budgets – especially in the current financial climate. That said, as technology evolves, costs are expected to become more affordable for the average car owner.

Ethical Dilemmas: Self-driving cars face moral questions in complex traffic situations where there’s no clear-cut solution to ensure 100% safety. Who determines the logic behind the car’s choices when faced with dilemmas that may harm either pedestrians or passengers? Manufacturers of self-driving car intelligence and their decision-making algorithms could be perceived as assuming the role of a “higher power.”

Machine Errors: The possibility of machine errors always exists, and in a fully automated world, such errors can endanger passengers and pedestrians alike. System activation or deactivation at inappropriate times, battery fires, breakdowns, or loss of control leading to accidents are all potential concerns.

The Advantages

It’s essential to emphasize that raising these concerns is not an attempt to spread fear. These are legitimate and valid worries in the current landscape. However, as technology advances, several advantages emerge in favor of self-driving cars and their widespread adoption in the future:

Improved Safety: Most car accidents stem from human errors, a long-standing issue. Self-driving technology relies on algorithms and advanced systems designed to eliminate human error, potentially eradicating accidents caused by distractions, impairment, or lapses in judgment.

Enhanced Traffic Efficiency: Self-driving cars, equipped with effective communication capabilities, promise smoother traffic flows and safer journeys. These vehicles can choose optimal routes for each trip, improving overall travel efficiency.

Environmental Benefits: Self-driving cars are likely to be electric, reducing the carbon footprint compared to traditional internal-combustion engines. This transition contributes to reduced emissions and a more environmentally sustainable mode of travel.

Inclusivity: Self-driving cars offer a safer transportation option for individuals with disabilities, the elderly, or those who may have hesitated to drive due to anxiety. This is particularly valuable in areas with limited public transportation options.

In Conclusion

As we witness the increasing prevalence of AI, including technologies like ChatGPT, the potential for refinement becomes more evident. The automated future ahead is promising and exciting, particularly in the realm of self-driving vehicles. While prospects of heightened safety, sustainability, and efficiency are alluring, we may still have a way to go before this vision becomes a tangible reality.