banner by Matthew Stoss

Uber Take the Wheel

by Alex Rosati

“Look ma, no hands!”

If you are a parent, just reading those words might make you cringe, but this phrase may have a very different connotation within the next few years. Ready or not, autonomous vehicles are coming, and may soon develop into one of the largest growing industries before the end of the decade.

Led by technology moguls, such as Google, Uber and Tesla, the automotive industry is on the precipice of a vehicular revolution. Soon, the technology to pilot cars free of human error will be available, while carpooling companies will be able to reduce the need for and cost of human drivers. Rush hour traffic may become a thing of the past, and most importantly, the rate of automobile accidents will be reduced to a thousandth of what it is now. The question is no longer if this technology will be available, but when, and one of the largest factors may have nothing to do with technology at all.

Whether it is the result of bad media or simply a natural mistrust of change, not everyone seems to be embracing such innovations. This budding industry has some moral mountains to climb before it truly begins making strides towards the future. Nonetheless, how exactly does one go about convincing an entire population that eliminating human control is actually in their best interest?

Let’s Look at the Stats

Approximately 33,000 people die annually on the roads of America. That equates to a fatal crash for every 94,000 miles driven. Since the 1970s, improved technology and safety systems have led to a steady decline in motor vehicle fatalities. However, the most dangerous aspect of the cars have remained surprisingly unchanged throughout the years. According to the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration, human error accounts for 94 percent of all crashes, but there is an impressive list of companies trying to finally make headway with this seemingly unchangeable factor.

Google became one of the first serious developers of fully autonomous cars in 2009. Since then, Google has logged over 1.5 million miles of autonomous driving and reported only 11 crashes, none of which at the fault of Google’s vehicles. Google continues to log about 10,000 miles of autonomous driving a week in almost exclusively in high-risk urban environments.

Tesla, another major competitor in the race towards autonomy, has taken a different approach by allowing its customers to use a semi-autonomous autopilot mode since October 2015. Connected to their fleet of about 70,000 cars, Tesla logs more driverless data every day than Google has since its inception. This ambitious approach has set an industry standard, but has not gone without controversy.  On May 7, 2016, only 130,000 miles after Tesla’s autopilot software was released, the first death in a self-driving car was recorded. This accident came as a brash reminder that the technology is not without fault. The company’s CEO, Elon Musk, stood by his vehicles with claiming, “The probability of having an accident is 50 percent lower if you have Autopilot on,” but this defense may prove quite controversial in itself. Even if driverless cars prove to be 10 times safer than cars driven by humans, that would still translate to over 3,000 motor vehicle deaths per year, all of which would be at the fault of the car. To some, it would be ludicrous to not to support such a drastic decrease in the accidental death rate, but there are clearly some ethical questions to be answered.  

Companies, such as Ford, Audi, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Apple claim to have the answers to these ethical questions. Seeing safety statistics as more of an asset than a concern, each boasts their own innovations within the autonomous field, some even anticipating cars with no steering wheels or gas pedals by 2021. Unfortunately, while numbers and projections say a lot, they may be overlooking a very important factor. This is where Uber comes in.

What People Are Saying

In September 2016, Uber began welcoming Pittsburgh customers in the back seat of their self-driving fleet. The cars come fully equipped with real time video feedback of its surroundings, a large red kill switch if the computer’s judgments do not seem accurate, a precautionary Uber driver, who keeps their hands hovered over the steering wheel and a studious engineer in the passenger’s seat taking notes to make sure everything is going smoothly. While this may seem excessive, the focus here is not on the experts in the front. Instead, it is on the passengers in the back.

Dr. Raj Rajkumar of Carnegie Mellon finds this set up to be necessary because, “Passengers need to know that the vehicle is indeed functioning correctly, operating safely,” and so far, this has been the overwhelming consensus. Within days of Uber’s announcement, journalists from around the world have flocked to Pittsburgh to provide their input, and Uber has not disappointed. Kerry Flynn of Mashable writes “At times, I found that the car may be a better driver than me.” Mike Isaac of The New York Times reported that he felt, “The car almost aired too much on the side of safety.”

So, the numbers are there, and the reviews are encouraging, but what does that really mean? An anonymous survey at the University of Pittsburgh found 46 percent of students indicated that they would be uncomfortable riding in a driverless car, while a study by the American Auto Association found this number to be closer to 75 percent when looking at the broader spectrum of Americans. Why is there such a disparity between the actual versus perceived safety of these cars? Brian Lathrop, a cognitive psychologist and senior manager of the Electronics Research Lab at the Volkswagen Group of America in Belmont, Calif. explains, “You’ll be sitting inside a robot, which is responsible for your safety and the safety of people around you. With that technology, there is a much higher bar in achieving the trust of users.”

A quick search on Google shows the top two suggestions with ‘driverless car’ in the search bar are ‘crash’ and ‘death’, but even with such a bad stigma, automakers continue to pour billions into the technology. Iteration and reiteration may, in fact, be the only way to gain the trust of the public, but unfortunately, not everyone can afford a Tesla Model-S, and Pittsburgh is currently the only city in the United States to be offering driverless amenities. At some point, the public opinion will become a bigger concern, and with the five-year time table provided by some of the more ambitious CEOs, it may be sooner than later.

Do We Really Have a Choice?

Trust is difficult to establish, especially when it is of a new technology that few people understand. However, trust is not stopping the multitude of competitors desperately trying to be the first to develop a reliable driverless car. Autonomous cars are the biggest topic in the world of technology today. There are billion-dollar motor vehicle moguls competing against blue chip technology giants and Silicon Valley start-ups alike. Thousands of lives and jobs are at stake with the prospect of safer roads and driverless cars, and so far, not even the most egregious of mistakes has slowed down the process. The technology is improving every day, even if our trust of it is not, so buckle up because whether drivers and passengers like it or not, we may no longer be in control of this ride.