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The dark side of autonomous cars

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A few months ago, I wrote a blog questioning the merits of fully autonomous vehicles and the excessively fast pace at which technology is evolving. Following recent articles on the subject, a colleague and I found ourselves in a healthy and relevant debate about the safety and reliability of these self-driving cars.

100% safe?
Companies like Google (which is working on its own prototype) will tell you that autonomous vehicles will one day be 100% safe and reliable -- heck, maybe even 200%. We all know that's impossible. While these automobiles are designed like well-oiled machines and most likely integrate some kind of fail-safe devices, there could always be a problem somewhere.

What if the car can't slow down in time and runs a red light, harming someone? What if the “driver” has to take control? Will they have the time and reflexes to avoid an accident? That brings us to the second point in our discussion...

Who or what is responsible?
Autonomous vehicles are and will be programmed to obey the letter of the law. However, in the event of a glitch that leads to a traffic violation, who will the police officer give the ticket to? Technically, you're not the driver. According to Google, the manufacturer should be held responsible and pay the fine. That opens up another can of worms, though.

Did you know that 41 million people in the U.S. get caught speeding every year, totalling $6.2 billion in fines? We're not even counting other violations, such as running a red light or a school bus stop sign. If we all use autonomous vehicles that supposedly can do no wrong, then...

How will governments make up for the loss in revenue?
Just imagine the drop in speeding tickets. As car owners, we'll be ecstatic. On the other hand, this may very well have terrible consequences on the economy. Less money in the government's coffers means more policemen could lose their jobs. And what about repair shops? Auto parts companies? Do you see all the collateral damage autonomous vehicles may cause?

Naturally, governments will want to make up for the loss in revenue. How? Well, they could decide to increase taxes, fuel prices, and parking fees or else implement toll systems on just about every road. Think about that.

The BIG silver lining
Of course, autonomous vehicles have major upsides, too. According to Weekly Science, they have the potential in the U.S. to save:
  • 1.9 billion gallons of fuel, equal to $101 billion;
  • 4.95 million accidents;
  • 30,000 related deaths;
  • 4.8 billion commuting hours.
Surprisingly (maybe), drivers in emerging countries have the most faith in autonomous vehicles. Brazilians (94%) and Indians (86%) top the list, while Canadians are about 50-50. Only 28% of Japanese drivers trust them.

One thing's for sure: Autonomous vehicles will take over our streets in the next decade, with a growing number of manufacturers already working on their technology. Even Google has started experimenting with new driverless cars that have no steering wheels and no gas or brake pedals!

What's your take on autonomous vehicles? Is technology moving forward too fast, and are we too dependent on it?