Autonomous Cars vs Human Drivers

Thwarting the robots of an autonomous future

We already know the what: Coming in the near future are driverless, fully autonomous automobiles. We know the where and the when, too: not on Mars or Krypton but right here on Mother Earth, possibly as soon as 2021 if you believe some optimistic auto execs. But what we don’t know yet—scratch that, what I don’t know yet—is the how and the why. How, I keep asking myself, are fully autonomous vehicles going to take over our streets? What’s more, why are they coming at all?

Let’s consider the how question first. Mind you, I’m already done with wondering how the world’s automakers and tech giants are going to overcome the staggering technological hurdles involved. Sure, there might be a few initial teething problems with the extraordinarily complex hardware, software, and infrastructure needed to replace humans with microchips at the wheel. But from the early autonomous prototypes I’ve seen so far, which can already operate at Level 5—the most advanced tier of vehicle autonomy—in controlled conditions, I’m confident 21st-century engineers and scientists will eventually be able to bring fully functional, reliable, and safe driverless cars to our roads. Until then, please allow me to stand aside and let someone else take Fully Autonomous Ride No. 1.

What remains a mystery to me, though, is how Level 5 automobiles are going to merge into the mainstream—and the fast lane. That’s because until autonomous cars presumably one day replace human-driven cars completely, the two are going to coexist. And that scenario—humans and robots competing for the same stretch of asphalt—sounds about as warm and friendly as the official unveiling of ED-209 in “RoboCop.”

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