Every year, thousands upon thousands of people of all ages die due to car accidents related to impaired drivers. In many cases, the impairment is due to alcohol. But impairment can be secondary to various drugs as well as physical exhaustion [such as doctors who drive home after having been on-call for 36 hours straight]. Every year, though, at the various automobile technology shows, more and more car companies display a technology that is intended to drastically reduce the risk of a faulty driver.
One such technology involves breathing into a tube which is effectively a breathalyzer and which will not allow your car to start unless your measured blood alcohol is below a certain level. This works great until the driver pays a mechanic a few extra dollars to disable this safety measure. Another bypass is to ask someone who was not drinking at the party, to breathe into the device and thus allow you to activate the engine.
It is astonishing that so many people accept injuries and fatalities from car accidents as if they are divinely decreed. I remember driving with one taxi driver whose son had recently obtained his license and had already accumulated a serious number of driving infractions. The taxi driver said to me very nonchalantly, that “kids will be kids” and that there is nothing that he can do as a parent to enforce even basic rules of proper driving etiquette. When I asked the taxi driver/father if he could simply take the car keys away from his son in the event that his boy smelled of alcohol when he came home, the answer I got was “boys will be boys” and there is nothing that either I nor he could do about it. In other words, the taxi driver was now extending his worldview to include myself and my family. He was stating that if my children did not end up in car accidents or stopped for speeding, it was purely luck rather than proper behavior on the roads.
My children know that should they ever be caught speeding or running a red light or stop sign, they will lose access to our family car for at least a year. They also know that I will not pay for a defense attorney to help them with any legal repercussions from their irresponsible driving. Even if it means ending up in jail and ruining their social record [which is critical for obtaining jobs in the future], such will be their punishment, so that they learn never to act in this way again. Whether by luck or by fear of my draconian rules, I am proud to say that none of my three children have had a driving related incident. And they know full well that if they plan to drink, they either take a taxi home or call home for someone to pick them up.
This long introduction is important to create a perspective when discussing driverless cars. Let me start with the simplest statistic that is intended to validate the use of computerized automated cars. If the use of such automated cars reduces, but does not eliminate, car accidents, then the driverless cars have already succeeded in one of their clear goals. If I know that my son will be ferried back and forth to a party by a driverless car, then I need not be concerned that he is inebriated on return from the party. A driverless car, like any computer, can be programmed such that if my child is below a certain age and the time on the clock has passed a certain hour, the driverless car will start to honk very loudly until the noise cannot be ignored. Then, the driverless car will bring my child home, regardless of his or her requests.
The driverless car could also be programmed to allow only one other passenger at a time, rather than have five or six people cram into its interior, which would pose an independent risk. The driverless car could phone the parents of the children informing the children’s parents of the behavior and ask how to proceed [leave the child for the parent to pick him or her up, take the child to a close by friend, take the child home, etc.]. Of course the driverless car would not initiate driving until everyone was properly in their seats and buckled in. The driverless car would also have an internal camera that would allow the parents to observe the activities within the car and to decide whether the children should be brought home, or should wait at the party until the parents come to personally pick them up.
There have been a number of stories about accidents being caused by driverless cars because of the actions of the surrounding human drivers. The obvious solution to this problem is to convert everyone to driverless cars. Once again, the question is not whether there is an anecdote of a near accident that was caused by a driverless car. The question is whether the number of injuries and fatalities from car accidents, drops with the significant introduction of driverless cars.
So, many people will benefit from driverless cars, and this will by no means be related only to countering the effects of acute impairment due to drugs or alcohol. Some elderly individuals lose their licenses due to poor vision or certain neurological abnormalities that slow their reflex times. With a driverless car, this same elderly person can get in and be chauffeured to the address requested. Of course, if a person is not acquainted with a particular part of town, the driverless car could display a map and show all of the buildings and houses in the area. If something looks strange, consistent with a wrong address, this would be an opportunity to call a loved one and verify the address.
Most people go to the same places most of the time. I admit that there is something whimsical about getting into a driverless car and declaring “home, James”. Once again, for certain elderly individuals who struggle with their memory, they may very well remember to say “my son’s home” or “the barber” even without remembering the exact address. From the perspective of personal safety, a family member could easily track where the driverless car has gone and how long the passenger has been out of the car. So if an elderly parent went shopping but has not returned for over four hours, this could already raise red flags as to the possibility that the parent may have lost his or her way.
People are afraid of new things. People are also afraid of relinquishing power to others, especially computers. Driving tends to be one of the last bastions of control that people have over elements in their lives. Once behind the wheel, they can go where they want to go, when they want to go, and how fast they want to go. I have often heard people describe how they came to terms with an issue by taking a drive to cool off. This dynamic will soon change. Soon, the hour to two hours spent each way in getting to and from school or work, will be reusable for study or reading the newspaper or reading for enjoyment. It may be a daily time to connect with family and friends. With 3-D simulations becoming better and better all the time, I can easily imagine two friends using a 3D communication tool (like Microsoft’s Hololens) to play a running game of chess every morning on their way to work.
Like any parent, I always get nervous when the phone rings and one of my children is out driving. In the near future, this will hopefully be one major thing that I will be able to worry a bit less about.
Thanks for listening