Thank you to everyone who participated in the 2016 Insurify Safe Driving Scholarship! We received close to 300 essay submissions and enjoyed reading through every single one! Our scholarship winner will be announced on our blog on Monday, April 18. Today, we are pleased to announce our honorable mention, Paul Gaschen of Baylor University. Paul is studying biology and medical humanities and plans to graduate in 2018.
Paul's submission detailed the future of the self-driving car following the prompt question: Are self-driving cars safer? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that driver incapacitation (seizure, heart attack, blackout) was the main cause of 6.4% of accidents. Driverless cars could address those problems. We’d like to hear your opinion about them in 750-1250 words. Are they safer? What are the societal changes that would come in place? What risks would autonomous vehicles eliminate or impose?
Congratulations, Paul! Anyone interested should stay tuned for future scholarship opportunities from Insurify!
Every day brings society one step closer to a world less in the hands of human control. Both micro and macro technological changes seem aimed at increasing efficiency, developing potential, and in some sense, removing human responsibility from mundane tasks. No leap into the dubious, techno-crazed future seems more astounding and close-at-hand than the self-driving car. With big name companies such as Tesla, Google, and even Apple joining the ranks of developers, the impossible seems more and more inevitable. As society awaits this large change, many questions arise over the safety, efficacy, and ethical impactions autonomous vehicles bring. Proponents claim that all trends in increasing technology lead toward the self-driving car as a benefit, bringing extra time for productivity, decreased human error, and near seamless road efficiency. Rivals argue that unreliable computers take away human individuality in driving situation and thus introduce a bevy of ethical and moral dilemmas. This opinion finds that the benefits provided by the self-driving car warrant its development and ultimate creation, but that the unavoidable real world scenarios of wrecks and unsafe driving conditions should be fully answered before the vehicles flood the markets and roads.
Much of automobile technology today helps drivers overcome human error such as blind spots, reaction time, and mental fatigue. These advances have helped decrease crashes and unsafe conditions, but a high percentage of human error accidents comes from unavoidable traumas such as seizures, heart attacks, and blackouts. Current driving technology cannot aid in situations such as these, which is why the next step in decreasing human error is the autonomous car. This significant benefit of nearly flawless driving seems too good to be true, but recently Google has provided data that suggests otherwise. A fleet of their autonomous vehicles racked up over three hundred thousand miles of pilot-less driving on California's roads and highways without crashing. While legislation requires that vehicles on the road have at least one driver, the cars operated autonomously, giving support to Google's goal of market-ready products by 2019.
In addition, this new age of cars would run with total subordination to speed limits, right-of-ways, stop signs, and all other forms of driving laws. This obedience would aid in easing the flow of traffic and add to the safety of travelers. Drivers would also avoid nearly all tickets, providing ease of mind and decreased insurance rates. However, these benefits would come with one setback: the mixture of autonomous cars and human-driven vehicles. Most of the time, people drive with a general leniency toward slight infractions to the law. For example, exit ramps sometimes have a speed limit much below the set speed limit on the highway. Many drivers take this as a suggestion speed, allowing their cars to slow down instead without applying the brakes. In initial Google driving tests, human drivers were seriously confused by vehicles actually exiting the highway at such low speeds. These instances created specific unsafe situations, but others would undoubtedly arise.
No computer can operate flawlessly, and many seem to have short life spans of less than a decade. How would this change if the computer was a car? In most cases, a computer malfunction in a car could be seriously dangerous, if not fatal. Developers would need to ensure the precision of both the hardware and software before cars became equipped with such navigation devices. However, questions of navigation and efficient performance are merely ingenuity questions. Shortly, computers will more than likely have the processing capabilities to handle the task of navigating traffic. One of the only true setbacks is that of the ethical dilemma of the crash.
For example, consider a packed highway filled with cars, motorcycles, and trucks hauling various goods. An autonomous car is driving in the center lane of the highway behind a large truck hauling oversized hay bales. The autonomous car is operating correctly, following the truck at a safe distance and driving at the posted speed limit, but to its right is a motorcyclist and to its left is an SUV. If the hay bales were to come off the back of the truck, what course of action would the car take? If it were to continue in the lane, it would most likely destroy the car and injure its passengers. If it swerved to the right, it would hit the motorcyclist, probably ending his or her life. If it swerved to the left, it would crash into the SUV, causing severe damage to both cars but ultimately protecting one or both passengers. The outcome is not the problem. If a human driver were forced to make a similar decision, his or decision would be considered a reaction to the situation. The actual problem is programming the computer for situations such as this. Would programmers value the passenger of the autonomous car, the motorcyclist, the SUV, or would they even be able to produce the complex algorithm required for driving in such a situation?
Even if this ethical dilemma could be solved, what party would be responsible in the off-chance crash that would inevitably occur? There is no way to punish an inanimate object such as a car, and the passengers of the autonomous car certainly did not choose the crash. Would the company who developed the car be responsible, or would the state somehow absorb the costs, reasoning that this situation would occur quite infrequently? How would autonomous and human-driven cars interact on the road? These questions would need to be answered before the actual tragedies occurred. Because these issues exist and are mostly unanswered to this point, cars without human drivers represent a hazard both to themselves, their passengers, and the other drivers on the road. To ignore these questions would show extreme negligence.
In all, the promise of safer roads, more efficient traffic patterns, and liberation from the stresses of driving do provide sufficient benefit to warrant the creation of autonomous automobiles. Vehicles that perfectly followed the law, were able to communicate with every other vehicle on the road, and eradicated human error would, in fact, provide safer driving conditions. With such a high percentage of wrecks avoided, insurance costs would more than likely decrease, and state governments would need to spend less on patrolling the roads for unsafe drivers. All of these benefits would change society for the better - but large obstacles still stand in the way of the fruition of such aspirations. Mainly, questions of the ethical deliberations of programmers and the fault involved in the rare chance of a crash would need to be answered and agreed upon by a majority of the population. If such problems could be overcome, the near future would see a substantial change in the way that society operates. Roads would quickly be filled with autonomous vehicles and become safer by the day. In consideration, self-driving cars would create safer driving conditions, both now and as they continued to develop and evolve in the future.