Driverless cars are something of a space-age phenomenon.
Driverless cars, when you think about them, seem so “futuristic.” Who would ever want to drive a driverless car? What about the dangers behind them?
Well, a near-collision between two vehicles (one from Google, the other from fellow Mountain View company Delphi Automotive) has consumers fearing the worst over a technology that hasn’t even “rolled” onto the market yet.
A Delphi executive reported that the company’s driverless car almost collided with a Google driverless car on Thursday on Palo Alto’s San Antonio Road. The report comes from Delphi Silicon Valley Lab director John Absmeier, who was sitting in the passenger’s seat of the Audi Q5 prototype at the time of the close call.
The Audi Q5 was preparing to change lanes when Google’s Lexus RX400h crossover cut off the Audi. Absmeier said that the Audi responded appropriately, and the Lexus and Audi did not have a collision (a “close call,” but merely close). The report, initially sent by Absmeier to Reuters, was later denied by Delphi: “The story was taken completely out of context when describing a type of complex driving scenario that can occur in the real world. Our expert provided an example of a lane change scenario that our car recently experienced which, coincidentally, was with one of the Google cars also on the road at that time. It wasn’t a ‘near miss’ as described in the Reuters story,” the company said.
Headlines in such situations are often known to cause mass hysteria among consumers who already fear the concept of driverless cars more than their potential or actual harm. Recent surveys say that 60% of Americans wouldn’t want to sit in the passenger’s seat of a driverless car while the vehicle, computer-generated to drive, performs the functions of normal human drivers.
What hasn’t been made as clear regarding driverless cars is that not all autonomous vehicles on the current market come without a front seat. Google has its prototypes on the road, but the majority of states that are already testing driverless vehicles or expressing interest in the technology are demanding human drivers be in a driver’s seat of some form (relegating Google’s non-driver’s seat models to the company’s own sole pursuits for the time being).
Semi-driverless vehicles that contain drivers in driver’s seats are meant to aid humans when they must answer a call, send a text or an email, or change their music station, for example. The goal of bringing these smart vehicles to market is to prevent the large number of accidents that happen in the US each year. While the advantages of driverless vehicles make them worth the risk, some consumers say that the “risk” involved is the problem.
While state decisions to utilize human drivers behind the wheel of semi-autonomous vehicles are unanimous, search engine giant Google sees a day when every vehicle lacks a front seat and only contains back seats for passengers. Google co-CEO Sergey Brin has gone on record stating that the goal of Google’s autonomous car project is to “reduce the need for individual car ownership, the need for parking, car congestion, and so forth,” he told Khosla Ventures founder Vinod Khosla in an interview last year.
Google’s got a noble tech project in the works, but near-collisions continue to give some credence to the consumer fear that driverless vehicles will put the safety of mankind into real danger. ScienceDaily’s Matt Windsor believes that the question about whether such vehicles benefit society or harm it will come down to decisions of spontaneity, like a blown tire that suddenly frustrates “everything as planned.” While computers can respond to situations quickly, the bigger issue is the “intelligent” decision-making that will become the responsibility of the vehicle and the vehicle programmer: “Should they be programmed to make the decision that is best for their owners? Or the choice that does the least harm – even if that means choosing to slam into a retaining wall to avoid hitting an oncoming school bus? Who will make that call, and how will they decide?”
Whether or not you define it as a “near-collision” or a “collision,” Google, Delphi, and other automakers must answer these questions sooner rather than later.