The idea of the ‘future’ as portrayed in so many movies is getting closer every day. Machines are becoming more and more intelligent and are replacing every day tasks normally done by humans. In the US alone, 73 million job losses are expected by 2030 due to the rise of automation. We are seeing these futuristic advances in the form of autonomous vehicles. The ‘vehicular arms race’ towards getting the first full to market autonomous vehicle service is fully underway. Uber, Toyota, Lyft, Tesla are only a few of the major players in the testing phases, perfecting the safety of passengers and those around them.

What is an autonomous vehicle?

Not to be confused with an automated vehicle, which rely on environmental factors (such as magnetic strips) to help dictate in the cars actions, autonomous vehicles are self-governing. Autonomous vehicles rely on their onboard computer and algorithms to interact with environmental hazards and through deep learning are able to appropriately react without the need of external intervention.

Who is in the race?

Many brands – automotive manufacturers or otherwise, are trying to hop on the bandwagon to be the first to roll out the their line of autonomous vehicles. It will set the stage for others to follow. While most of these companies all share the common goal of autonomy, a few are trying to tackle unique paths.

Lyft & nuTonomy

Right here in Boston, Lyft and nuTonomy have been testing autonomous vehicles for sometime with a select few lucky Lyft passengers to move ride sharing services away from human drivers. These vehicles have still had a driver on board for any type of emergencies. Until recently, testing has been limited to the Seaport District, but as of 6/21, testing has been greenlighted for the entire city of Boston. Testing across the city will help provide nuTonomy with much more data as they interact with the overly complicated streets of Boston.

Toyota & Uber

Aiming to build a fully autonomously-driven shuttle, Toyota is partnering with other big brands including Amazon, Uber, Mazda & Pizza Hut to create the first major mobile retail market, e-Pallette. Imagine showing up to a concert and there are 40 different autonomously driven shops selling everything from pizza to band shirts. Or imagine ordering a shuttle to get you to work with a small office inside so you can finish that project you have to turn in at 10 am. Toyota is tooting the limitless possibilities of these autonomous shuttles as the future of retail.

Tesla’s Enhanced Autopilot

Considered to be at the forefront of technology, Tesla is working hard to perfect their Enhanced Autopilot that has features including: self-parking, automatic lane switching and summoning the car from a garage or parking spot.  Tesla eventually plans to have a car drive coast-to-coast while operating on this autopilot system. Elon Musk believes by 2019, people will be able to sleep in their cars until they reach their destination.

Benefits of Autonomous Vehicles

The main thought behind autonomous vehicles is safety. If humans are taken out of the equation, we can reduce accidents, drunk drivers, speeding and more. However, testing these deep learning algorithms and perfecting them to be able to react as appropriately as a human will be the key to their success.

Another major advantage would be reducing traffic. If accidents were reduced, speed limits could increase. Traffic congestion could be lowered due to the cars being able to interact more fluidly with each other, especially when emergency vehicles are involved.  In fact, researchers at Columbia University estimate that automation could boost highway capacity by 273 effectively eliminating traffic all together! What would a world be like without traffic?

Moral Machines?

Besides the obvious safety issues, many moral issues exist with autonomous vehicles. While public opinion is currently around 50/50 on whether they would be okay with using a driverless vehicle, studies show that most Americans believe it will be the norm in 10-50 years.

Legal responsibility is a huge concern in this market. Who is held accountable in these situations where something goes wrong? Can the cars algorithm really make the best decision in fatal situations? Can a car decipher between saving one or many?

In addition to physical safety, cyber security issues also exist. With the use of technology to fully drive a car, these systems have the potential to be hacked. Whether it is for personal information or even worse, a cars functionality could be hacked to cause any number of issues.

I recently overheard someone on a bus say “I’ll buy anything that’s convenient”. I think that resonates with most people today. Autonomous cars would be the next major step in convenience. But how does trust come into play? Would you trust autonomous vehicles more if you understood what was going on under the hood? Why not find out for yourself!



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