aarp

Berg

Imagine driving alone in your car, but instead of sitting behind the wheel, you’re dozing in the backseat as a computer navigates through traffic on your behalf. Can that still be called “driving?”

Autonomous/self-driving vehicle technology is developing rapidly, and almost every vehicle manufacturer has announced plans to offer driverless vehicles in the near future. There are still many questions about what their impact will be, how safe the technology is, and how they will affect our lives. Five recent books provide a variety of perspectives to help the public understand the technology and the ramifications of the driverless vehicle revolution. Former New York City Traffic Commissioner Sam Schwartz is the author of one of the books, “No One at the Wheel: Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future.”

During an interview on NPR, Schwartz predicted that driverless vehicles will transform roads, jobs, and economies. He notes that while repair shops, trucking companies, and auto dealerships may lose business, other industries, such as the advertising industry, may benefit from a captive backseat audience. Schwartz offered his answers to some of the questions about driverless vehicles. How might driverless cars look different from the cars of today? Will they be rooms on wheels? “There’s no reason to think a driverless car is going to look like a car, other than that’s what we’re used to.”

What will be the broader impact of autonomous vehicles? Schwartz thinks there will be fewer drivers on the road, which also means there are probably going to be fewer repair shops. The major vehicle manufacturers are already experimenting with Uber-type businesses, so car dealerships may disappear, especially if they focus on offering rides, rather than selling as many vehicles as possible. Schwartz believes “lots of industries will be affected. The insurance industry, certainly, will be affected, since we will have fewer crashes, and about a third of the insurance industry is based on crashes. And if we have fewer crashes, there are going to be fewer cases in court. There’ll be less of a burden on the court system.”

What about the safety record of driverless vehicles? Schwartz says the manufacturers have lots of data, but they’re not sharing it with the public. The only data that’s accessible is from California, and the results are problematical. “We know of three deaths and not because of any industry reporting. That’s the media reporting of three deaths related to cars driving in autonomous mode. For conventional cars, that would take 260 million miles before that would occur. And here we have three deaths and AVs have driven maybe 10 or 15 million miles. In California, which requires the reporting of crashes, the cars in autonomous mode are crashing nine or 10 times more often than the conventional cars.”

One of the difficulties driverless vehicles have is recognizing people and predicting human behavior. They have difficulty figuring out what a pedestrian is or what a pedestrian is going to do. They cannot always tell a child from a dog, or a tree branch overhanging the road will be identified as something in the way. “We [human drivers] are far from perfect. Will the manufacturers solve a lot of that? Yes, they’re going to. They could solve a lot of the safety problems in the next few years.”

Mark Berg is a former instructor for the AARP Driver Safety Program. His email address is MABerg175@comcast.net.

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