Are self-driving cars just around the corner?

By Mike Strathdee

As printed in The Marketplace – July/August 2018

How soon will fully autonomous vehicles be in widespread use?

It depends who you ask.

Getting humans out from behind the wheels of cars and trucks could relieve some societal problems. An estimated 1.2 million deaths occur around the world annually due to car crashes, with 94 per cent of these fatalities caused by human error.

Commuters waste a full week of their lives in traffic every year. In the US, there are three non-residential parking spaces for every car.

General Motors hopes to launch a fleet of autonomous vehicles in 2019, says Jayant Bonsal, engineering group manager for the automaker’s autonomous vehicle division.

GM is committed to a future of three zeros — zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion, Bonsal said at a seminar on autonomous vehicles at the University of Waterloo.

A Chinese automaker has also announced plans to introduce autonomous vehicles in the coming model year. But that doesn’t mean change will occur quickly, or without cost.

Society must grapple with job losses that will result from a shift to autonomous vehicles, says Heather Douglas, a UW philosophy professor. In Canada alone, more than 300,000 people make their living driving.

Autonomous driving is complicated because, for all the talk of artificial intelligence, computers are, at the moment, “inherently unintelligent,” says Sebastian Fischmeister, a UW engineering professor.

However, the 50-70 computerized systems that are already embedded in cars are becoming too complex for humans to understand, so we will need computers to watch the computers.

Complexity will only increase, as multiple sensors are deployed in each vehicle to mitigate error and ensure a system doesn’t just rely on cameras.

As accidents caused by human errors plummet, every accident will become a potential product liability case, says George Takach, a Toronto technology lawyer.

Uber drivers needn’t worry about being unemployed just yet. “There will be drivers in those vehicles for quite some time,” Bozema Saint John, Uber’s chief brand officer, said at the recent True North technology conference.

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