Some people dream of the day when cars will be able to drive themselves. Others dread it. No matter which side you stand on, we can all agree that autonomous cars will change the driving landscape. But how will they do it, and are we going to say goodbye to driving?
At first glance, the whole question sounds ridiculous. As if you are asking “Will taking away your ability to drive kill the joy of driving?”. Of course, it will!
But let us take a step back since things get a bit more complicated than most of us think. To actually understand the whole issue, we have to answer three questions:
- What does it mean for a car to be autonomous (and will it ever happen)?
- Can autonomous and non-autonomous cars coexist?
- What is the joy of driving worth?
What is an autonomous car?
Honestly, most of us do not even understand what “self-driving” even means. To clear things up, engineers have proposed 5+1 theoretical levels of autonomy. However, the definitions are rather fluid, so take them with a grain of salt.
Level 0 means no autonomy at all, and the drivers have to do everything on their own. You may be surprised, but most cars no longer fall into this category. They are actually Level 1: some driver assistance present. Think of this as adaptive cruise control, sensors for emergency braking, or park assistance, among other features.
Then comes Level 2, which some luxury models have already. They can keep you in your lane, steer in certain situations, and even accelerate if necessary. From there we get to Level 3, where you can take your eyes of the road in certain conditions. At this point, the car has some self-driving capabilities, but you need to be present for navigating more complex situations (e.g. traffic jams, maneuvering). As of now, no cars are truly Level 3, and anything above that still lies in the future.
Think of Level 4 cars as “drivers in training”. They are autonomous, for the most part, but you still have to handle emergencies. Finally, we get to Level 5: full autonomy. At this point, the vehicle does not even need a steering wheel.
Although Elon Musk has said Tesla is close to level 5 autonomy, I remain skeptical. In order for Level 5 cars to actually work, we need to solve more things than just automation. Such vehicles will need fast internet, stable networks, standardized communication, and other crucial details. That leads us to our second question.
Can autonomous and non-autonomous cars coexist?
If both types of vehicles can work together, driving enthusiasts will have nothing to worry about. In other words, we can have our cake and eat it too. Or can we?
Most of the arguments for self-driving cars require us to go to the extreme. That means getting rid of any traditional vehicles. Though that sounds harsh, it is a logical conclusion.
Let’s look at the self-driving vehicles’ case. Autonomous cars will supposedly reduce accidents, alleviate road congestion, minimize traffic overall by improving efficiency, cost you less, and the list goes on. Even if we accept these benefits at a face value, the only way to get them will be… to do away with conventional cars. Why? Because autonomous vehicles rely on near-perfect data sharing and AI reactions.
If you are a fan of driving, this news sounds horrible. Some folks have proposed compromises, but we still do not know if they will work. For instance, we can have “driver” and “driverless” roads. Or we can just vote whether we even want Level 5 everywhere. Though it comes down to one final thing…
What is the joy of driving worth?
According to official data, more than 12 people per 100,000 die in a traffic accident in the US. Many more get severe injuries. If self-driving vehicles can halve that, will it not be worth it? Even a 25% accident reduction translates to millions of lives saved worldwide. Or do we care more about pleasure?
Currently, statistical models show that autonomous cars will reduce deaths by more than 90%. Of course, you may not agree with such estimates, but real-world data will start piling up at some point, and then we will have to face the results. Still, I will be happy to hear the opposing argument. Unfortunately, even enthusiasts agree that autonomous cars will reduce accidents if they take over.
Plus, it looks like most people are not that fond of driving anyway. In fact, folks in Europe are now fighting for car-free zones. Maybe giving up on driving will not be that big of a problem for most of us.
That does not mean driving should cease to exist altogether. Maybe it can be a hobby for special tracks or off-road routes. You can manually do plenty of other automated things for fun nowadays (e.g. woodworking). Why should driving be different?
So, yes – in a sense, autonomous cars will kill the joy of driving. But hopefully, they will make it harder for driving to continue with its actual killing spree. Or maybe they will not? That would be a topic for another day.