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In the 1989 film Batman, a tough as nails Michael Keaton finishes punching out some goons when he hits a switch. A familiar beep sounds, and then we hear that engine gunning. The original was a Cadillac and it’s changed forms a few times since then, but the concept has always been the same. Be like Batman: buy yourself an autonomous car! You can almost see the art-deco posters advertising the wave of the future.
It’s here now, most recently with the signing of SB 1298. Penned by Senator Padilla, signed by Governor Brown the bill orders the DMV of California to come up with provisions that make allowances for self-driving cars.
So what could go wrong?
Cars could Malfunction
Cars already use computer systems to monitor the status of vital parts. GPS tracks your location and tells you where to go. As more of those systems become standard packages in luxury vehicles, there is more leeway for problems to occur.
GPS apps provided by Apple and Google don’t always provide optimal directions. Apple’s maps application often got people lost and may not always offer optimal directions to get somewhere. These systems are based on algorithms that try to account for variances, but sometimes fail miserably.
How many times have you been in a friend’s car with a rolled up window because the window button is malfunctioning? These are expensive fixes, but drive that car into a river and those expensive fixes become life-threatening problems.
Accidents Could Happen
In the event of an accident with an autonomous vehicle, the question has been raised as to who is responsible. Automakers are lobbying hard to have responsibility lifted from them, but the fact is that no one really knows who will be responsible. Self-driving cars can navigate race tracks at high speeds without incident, but accidents are called accidents for a reason. Every recorded accident involving a self-driving car has been with a manually driven car, or during a point in which the self-driving car was switched to manual driving.
Legislation has been quiet about the issue, but with bills like SB 1298, the clock is ticking and answers will need to come.
What About Hacking?
Video at Defcon 21 showed hackers taking apart a Toyota Prius and hacking into the on-board computer systems. It took time, more than a few hours (close to a month actually), but they were able to get into the vehicle’s systems and control everything about it. They could slam on the brakes, turn the steering wheel, even tighten a seat belt’s straps.
The message is that car hacking is not a fantasy, it’s here right alongside the cars themselves. Just like other companies in industries that NEED secure data (banks, governments, etc..), car companies that have centralized control of these vehicles will need cutting edge network security software to keep drivers safe from harm.
There is also risk on the consumers side. Rather than the club or the car alarm, we may have antivirus or aftermarket hardware.
What About Industry?
The BLS says that the trucking industry is set to grow at a faster than average pace over the next 5 to 7 years. The industry may be waiting for the time to test the technology. Advances in green technology already interest truckers, who now compete against the rising cost of diesel. Fortunately there is still a need to transport goods across short distances, something truckers are adept at.
Yay or Nay?
Ultimately, self-driving cars will be a good thing. Barring a few incidents that have the potential to cause harm, cars that use physics calculations to judge distance will help improve the flow of traffic. The transition will be gradual, as with any new technology. Those with the most money will often have the tech first, and it will trickle down to consumer level soon after. Will we all be driving autonomous cars in five, ten or even twenty years away? Only time will tell.