After terrorism, possibilities of North Korean aggression, computer hackers taking over our city grids, bullying, sexual harassment and numerous health concerns, one not-so-widely-understood concern should be self-driving cars.

History of fun

The automobile industry has a long history of providing fun and exciting experiences when we get into their cars.  To name a few, we all remember Ford’s Pinto and it’s exploding gas tank; we have seen Takata’s exploding airbags, and some have experienced Chrysler’s Pacifica shutting off at 70 miles an hour. Remember shredding Firestone tires?  Remember sticky gas pedals?  How about faulty switches?  Yes, with cars, there has always been a great deal of excitement.

We are now at the bottom steps of a new level of excitement with self-driving cars, and we, or more probably our children, may come to have the joy of that pit-in-the-stomach feeling of wonderment about what will happen as they get in their car and their travel experience begins.

I’d rather see widespread use of non-polluting jetpacks as seen in the old television show The Jetsons.

Despite all of the jazzy and sexy hype about the potential benefits of self-driving cars from car manufacturers, and supported by many that will benefit financially, the current reality of self-driving vehicles is that the real problems far outweigh any of the hoped for potential benefits.

Safety First

Safety is the number one marketing concept being used to gain support for self-driving cars.  We are told, correctly, that approximately eighty percent of car accidents are the result of human error.  The follow up is that self-driving cars, controlled by computers, would eliminate a great deal of driver “bad behavior” because computers cannot be “distracted.”

Volvo became a best-seller marketing safety.  Hopefully the public will not be duped because someone says these cars will be safer.

Experience fun and hope for the best

Imagine getting into your SD car and you are quickly on the highway.  You have no control.  It is a machine that, if something goes awry, you could kill or be killed. This machine, this car, is being controlled by a learned algorithm, which, if not right 100 percent of the time could cause a crash.  We know that despite the concept of artificial intelligence, your driving experience will be vulnerable to things and events that were not programmed into the software.

Many simple or even stupid things could send error signals to the driving controller that then would prevent it from properly responding.  Imagine the dangers created by a sticker placed by a mischievous teenager covering the word “STOP” on the sign; or a missing sign, or road construction that began after the software was programmed, and much more.  Danger lurks.

Will weather conditions be able to be factored into the software?  A heavy rain or snowstorm could do serious damage to laser sensors, and thus hide or distort painted lines or roads and highways, making the navigation system erratic, or even useless.

Self-driving cars will be our next amusement park thrill ride.  Our daily routines will be new adventures resembling death-defying experiences where everyone is on their own.  Every ride is different because every car is different and few will be programmed exactly the same.  Hopefully no one “bumps” into you.  This could become the scariest show on earth.

Rely on computers?

Will the software operating SD cars take into consideration the wear and tear on these vehicles and adjust to assure safety? When was the last time your vehicle was up to date with everything listed in the car manual? Will the computers and the software consider under-inflated tires or even if the oil hasn’t been changed as regularly as manufacturers suggest?

My government and the nice car guys will protect me

Do you think our government has our back?  Think again.  A Senate bill from last October has been highly criticized by safety advocates. They complain that the bill has few consumer safeguards. The bill would allow manufacturers to sell vehicles that would be exempt form current safety standards, including those of crashworthiness.  The bill also protects manufacturers from civil liability if their vehicles cause accidents. The bill does not address issues such as cyber-security, which would theoretically keep the self-driving cars safe from hackers.  The bill also prevents states from taking independent regulatory action.

Congress seems to want states to have no say at all about safety.

What about those nice thrill providing manufacturers?  Do they want you to be safe?  General Motors wants to immunize the industry from liability if you are killed due to a computer glitch or improper programming.  No liability equals less incentive to assure safety.

Beyond the federal government, will states back us? If California is the example, that backing may not be so much. Historically a rock on consumer protection matters, California has embraced GM’s recommendations. Proposed regulations would protect carmakers from lawsuits in cases where the vehicles were not maintained according to manufacturer specifications.  Again, when was the last time your car was fully compliant with all manufacturer specs?  What a wonderful, huge loophole for automakers!  No responsibility for a fatal collision because you didn’t change the oil.

The technology people will protect us, right?

There are potentially bigger problems than government in keeping you safe in a SD car. There are over two hundred technology companies looking to be involved in this self-driving revolution.

The technology industry has thus far been virtually unregulated.  The auto industry has always been regulated and the movement being seen is toward more regulation, particularly in the area of safety.  Will, or even better, can the technology industry pull together and allow itself to be regulated when it comes to self-driving cars? We know that technology innovations often move at the speed of light, and we also know that passing laws and developing regulations move slower than sleeping turtles.

Do computers ever malfunction?  While computer errors are less frequent, are you ready to be the driver going 70 MPH who experiences a malfunction that stops your vehicle, or causes it to go into oncoming traffic?

We are ready, aren’t we?

Self-driving cars will encounter U.S. infrastructure.  They will operate on existing roadways, highways and city streets that have not been optimized for the use of self-driving cars.  Understanding again that software will control everything, will that software be able to adapt to the multitude of things on these roadways?  If it is not in the software, well, “DANGER WILL ROBINSON, DANGER!”

Self-driving vehicles will depend on accurate mapping through GPS.  Perfection is going to be necessary. Whoops, an unmapped one-way street. Crash.  Hello fellow driver who I’ve now front-ended.

Self-driving car safety is going to depend upon large numbers of drivers using them. Currently, 75% of people do not want to use self-driving cars.

But large numbers of users is critical to SD safety and success. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication is a critically important factor in preventing collisions.  Vehicles must be able to “see” and “talk to” each other to allow them to react to the actions of one of them. If not so many are using SD cars, the “talk to each other” feature fails.

Next in line, beyond safety on another scale, we know that for every good use of software there are those who will look to exploit, and attempt to use that software for numerous bad purposes.  Self-driving cars can be hacked, just as any other computing device.  It is not a stretch to image hackers taking control of a vehicle’s steering or acceleration. Doors can be locked.  Cars can be detonated. A vehicle could become a weapon.

Hijacking self-driving cars, for profit or other purposes, could create chaos on our nation’s roads.

A final concern

Identity theft.  If hackers can take control of a vehicle, and a driver’s personal information is tied to their vehicle, the hacker can gain access to that information and use it, sell it, or hold it for ransom.  Just thinking.

Thrill rides.  Go to the amusement park. Buy a jetpack.

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