The potential downside to autonomous autos

This image provided by Google shows a very early version of Google's prototype self-driving car. The two-seater won't be sold publicly, but Google on Tuesday, May 27, 2014 said it hopes by this time next year, 100 prototypes will be on public roads. (AP Photo/Google)

By Allen Penticoff 
Columnist 

[dropcap]This[/dropcap] will conclude my four-part series on autonomous automobiles (AA) and the Level 5 completely autonomous vehicle future. In this column I’ll comment on the downside to AA5 technology.

One of the first things that comes up in discussions about AA5 vehicles driving for us is decision making on the part of the vehicle or system. Will the vehicle be able to see that a ball rolling toward the street will possibly having a child chasing after it? Will the vehicle be able to decide then whether to hit another vehicle to avoid hitting the child? Many similar scenarios play out.

Will the AA5 vehicle understand someone, a police officer, standing in the street or road waving to direct traffic to stop, detour or pull over?  Would you be able to pick up a stranded motorist if the vehicle has no manual controls and you cannot override its program to proceed to its destination?

If the “driver” is intoxicated, can you still get a D.U.I. if you are not actually driving? Will law enforcement be able to “know” where you’ve been and hunt you down for a possible D.U.I.? Will drivers/riders turn off the vehicle’s GPS so this information is not shared?

Will getting around become a truly soulless thing with everyone in nearly identical pods? Will the auto industry and its vast number of jobs vanish – as with little individual choice – people will cease shopping for cars? Will our cityscapes become distressingly boring with thousands of similar pod/cars plying our streets?

If the vehicles we ride in are shared, and nobody is monitoring their usage, will your AA5 pod arrive as a pig sty mess from some previous user? Will users be “monitored” so that if they make a mess they are charged for the clean up (a la Uber)?

Could terrorists and other extremists have a bomb delivered in an autonomous vehicle? Certainly. Will this be a problem? Probably. Will it be a widespread problem? Not likely.

Will light rail and local buses systems go out of business when a pod ride is so inexpensive?

How will the AA5s deal with emergency responders? This I see as a positive actually. Since the emergency responders can make everyone pull over and stop and thus clear the way. There are far too many accidents between responders/police and citizens not aware of their approach. Otherwise the police might well cruise about in AA5 mode looking for crimes taking place rather than having to concentrate on simply driving.

How will the AA5 interact with vehicles that are not a part of the system? Will it be able to exceed the speed limit temporarily to be able to merge with freeway speed traffic, or will it stop because it can’t quite figure out what to do?

In a previous column I wrote about impatient drivers tailgating me as I drove the speed limit. What will the AA5 do in this situation? Will it be able to pull over and let them go by?  Will it speed up?

Some worry how will the AA5 interact with bicycles and pedestrians? Will everyone have to carry a device that informs these systems of “what” we are, a bicycle or pedestrian, and what our direction and rate of speed is so the system can decide what to do with us. How much data needs to be analyzed to decide that pedestrians strolling on the sidewalk are not a factor, versus someone about to step out and cross the street between two parked cars?

So here we have rather considerable pros and cons to the widespread implementation of autonomous vehicles. One thing is for sure – they are coming and they’ll change our lives much as adoption of the automobile did over the horse and buggy.

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