The Greater Good: Are Autonomous Vehicles More than Mere Objects of Convenience?

Photo courtesy of Drive.ai

Photo courtesy of Drive.ai

By Themistoklis Alexis

Convenience is king in the digital age, and a number of guilds, including Google’s Waymo and Drive.ai, aim to do the tenet justice with the self-driving car. This tantalizing, yet embryonic innovation has been eased into a handful of low-risk locales across the continental US as of late. However, is there a grander purpose for autonomous vehicles (AVs) beyond optimizing the careerist’s commute or shepherding tourists to and from suburban Texas hotspots à la Drive.ai?

Timothy Carone, a technology professor at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, certainly believes so. While predicting when AVs will be fit for the masses remains a Sisyphean order, Carone expects them to mitigate both the consumer’s need for a personal vehicle and, by association, parking, thereby leaving countless lots ripe for reinvention. This will compensate for the workforce hits in the automotive supply chain with an abundance of jobs in other sectors.

“There are 200 square miles of parking garages in the city of LA. Imagine if most of those disappeared and you had 150 square miles to repurpose in Los Angeles,” Carone remarks to DTK Men. “You could do a lot with that, including vertical farming to feed people in LA and relieve some pressure off the San Joaquin Valley. I absolutely think that while it may destroy jobs in the automotive supply chain, it will create lots of jobs [elsewhere]. The telephone operator job goes away, but the mobile app developer replaces it, so I think it’ll work that way.”

According to Carone and the Director of the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator, Daniel V. McGehee, with the driver’s eventual extinction, a plunge in DUIs and therefore car accidents will also follow. However, a pair of fatalities have been attributed to AVs in the United States earlier this year. The death toll has not likely bolstered the innovation’s case in the court of public opinion, though McGehee maintains that gradual increases in automation will lead to safer roads.

“I think all of us have friends who’ve been in a crash, and you generally have some sympathy, empathy for your human driver, friends or family, but I think people don’t have a lot of sympathy for robots crashing and hurting people, even though in the US, we [humans] killed about 40,000 people on roadways last year.”

“When you look at [US] studies and other national studies by Transport Canada, the vast majority of crashes are human-error-contributed. I think you’ve got to look at data from the US that really looks at a reduction in crashes with technologies like automatic emergency braking and others, to really see how these are truly good things. They’re not perfect, and I think that’s really important, but overall, there are a lot of very positive things to say.”

McGehee and Carone agree it’s not a matter of if, but when the flaws get wiped from the design, and driverless cars will be the norm, as opposed to a divisive pie in the sky for Waymo and Co. But for the time being, purists can rest easy, says McGehee. “A purely self-driving robot that operates in all conditions, picks you up at your place and takes you to work, that can drive in any kind of road conditions in a city, is probably decades away. I think we’ll see quite a few small demonstrations in cities like we’re seeing now, but it’s a very slow thing.”