Since Ralph Nader first took on the auto industry by publishing Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965, automobile manufacturers have immensely improved the safety and reliability of motor vehicles. Seatbelts, airbags, anti-lock brakes and tire pressure monitoring systems have all reduced traffic accidents and fatalities. And automotive technology continues to advance with passive safety systems such as lane keep assist, blind spot monitoring, imminent collision alert, and adaptive cruise control.
Fifty years later, Nader is still zealous about safety. He closely tracks how government regulation applies to current challenges of the auto industry, and he has been following Voikswagen’s scandal involving cheating diesel emissions tests.
But other advances, such as autonomous driving, cause Nader to be skeptical. “First, is it being ballyhooed just for public relations purposes by Google and others as a dimension of their innovation and modernity? Or is it a real an alternative?” he says. “I don’t think we’re going to see a driverless car for a long time to come. There are far too many imponderable variables on the highway, unanticipated intrusion, and not to mention insurance and regulation and the feeling that you’re not in control of the cars.”
Try telling that to Google and the car companies who are invested heavily into their autonomous driving development programs, such as Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Ford. They see the future of driverless cars helping to reduce accidents, easing traffic on our congested roads, improving fuel economy, and bringing mobility to those unable to drive.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has strong thoughts about autonomous driving made evident when he stated, “people may outlaw driving cars because it’s too dangerous.”
Google has been developing a self-driving car for six years and has created an artificial intelligence system that is the equivalent of 40 years of driving experience. With enough mileage logged to circumnavigate the globe more than 40 times, there have only been eleven recorded incidences and none of the autonomous vehicles were at fault.
Autonomous vehicles don’t drive drunk, don’t drive distracted and don’t fall asleep at the wheel. Self-driving cars are wired with cameras, infrared sensors, networked maps and a host of other software, which empowers them to accurately avoid dangers in ways humans can’t. They can brake faster, swerve quicker and anticipate changes in road conditions faster and more accurately than any human. Plus car-to-car communication enhances the efficiency and eliminates road rage when humans are involved.
As a strong advocate of safety and technology that advances safety, Nader is still wary of potential increased risk for deceptive software and hacking. “The lesson today is that democracy has to control technology, because technology is out of control. It doesn’t have an ethical or legal framework or standards by which it can be curtailed when it goes off the deep end and endangers people and the environment.”
Lately there has been more reported software hacking with the potential to take control of a vehicle away from the driver without the driver’s knowledge. There haven’t been any reports of malicious software hacking, but a scary thought is that the potential risk of gaining access, shutting off the engine and thereby making the brakes almost inoperable does exist. Are we giving hackers a bigger opportunity to take control of vehicles when there are more self-driving cars on the road?
While autonomous vehicles may be commercially available within five years, we are still twenty years away from having our driving duties taken out of our hands as per government regulation. With over two billion vehicles on the roads today and the average life span of a car getting close to 11 years, a full transition to autonomous vehicles could take a minimum of two decades to achieve.
But according to the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, D.C., attaining a partial penetration will save 21,000 lives a year in the U.S. alone. We should all work on making driverless cars fully integrated into our highway system — as if our lives depended on it. Because people are going to die needlessly if we don’t.