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Your Car May Be Programmed to Kill You — and 9 More Fun Facts About Self-Driving Vehicles

Futuristic car
Futuristic car


Personal jetpacks. Weekend jaunts to the moon. An end to cancer. The 21st century as promised in books and films has largely failed to materialize. Except for one shining exception: driverless cars.

The most famous driverless cars in the world belong to Google. Since 2009, its experiments have clocked more than 750,000 miles on California roads with neither a driver nor an accident. But Google’s cars aren’t alone. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Navlab built their first experimental autonomous vehicle back in 1984. In 2010, a semi-autonomous van built by researchers at the University of Parma drove from Italy to Shanghai and back, a round trip of more than 8,000 miles.

Much of the technology invented for these cars, like adaptive cruise control that applies the brakes when it detects slow traffic ahead, has found its way into mainstream vehicles. The benefit is clear: In normal driving conditions, a car with cameras, radar, and sophisticated software is probably a better driver than you are.

And it might be better at some driving tasks you don’t like. Companies like Audi, BMW, Ford, and Lexus offer vehicles that can park themselves. The 2014 Mercedes S-Class sedan can negotiate stop-and-go traffic with no driver input. In 2017, General Motors plans to introduce a line of Cadillacs with “Super Cruise” control that will enable drivers to merge onto a freeway, and then let go of the wheel and let the car steer itself, says John Capp, director of electrical and active safety R&D. Tesla’s Model D sedan will incorporate similar features. In three years, Volvo plans to have 100 such cars on the streets of Gothenburg, Sweden.

All those vehicles are still semi-autonomous. They need a human to sit behind the wheel and take control for much of the time. Within a decade or two, though, fully autonomous cars — without steering wheels, accelerators or brake pedals — will begin to appear. (Google and the Parma researchers are already testing prototypes.)

In this video, Google’s driverless testers show how the semi-autonomous vehicle navigates city streets in Mountain View, California. (Google)

When fully autonomous vehicles do arrive, they will alter our world in ways many people haven’t begun to imagine. They may even be forced to make life-and-death decisions. Here are 10 ways they will change your life:

1. Your car might be programmed to kill you.
We’ll get the biggest downside out of the way up front. In extremely rare circumstances, your car may be forced to confront what is known as “the trolley problem.” Or, for Star Trek fans, a Kobayashi Maru scenario.

This is the trolley problem: Five people have been tied to a track and there’s a trolley bearing down on them. By flipping a lever, you can divert the trolley to a parallel track where a single person is standing. So your choices are to do nothing and kill five people or take action and kill just one.

Substitute an autonomous car for the trolley, and you have a decision a driverless car might theoretically face. Unlike Captain Kirk, you won’t be able to reprogram the scenario to engineer a winning outcome. In fact, the car’s software would be programmed to minimize the damage. But how? Should it minimize danger to the owner of the car, possibly sacrificing the occupants of another vehicle? Or should it seek the lowest number of injuries, even if it means killing you?

Aerial view of car accident
Aerial view of car accident


That is a real question with no easy answer, says Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University. The only workable approach is for manufacturers to make these programming decisions transparent, so consumers will have realistic expectations and can decide if it’s worth the risks, he says.

“It’s one thing for a human to steer her car off a cliff and quite another thing for a machine to make that choice,” Lin says. “It’s also one thing for pedestrians to be struck by a car whose driver made a bad reflexive decision and quite another thing for them to be struck because the robot car was programmed deliberately to target them or put them at greater risk. Setting expectations can help with some of this, but probably not all.”

2. Automated cars may accelerate population growth.
Every year, 1.2 million people die in traffic accidents, according to the World Health Organization. That’s more than two humans every minute. Autonomous cars are likely to save thousands of times more people than they kill.

At this point we don’t know for certain that semi- or fully autonomous cars will be safer than those driven by humans, admits Lawrence Burns, a consultant working with Google on its driverless car project, and former VP of research and planning for GM. But the evidence strongly suggests that they will. According to a 2008 study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), 93 percent of all traffic accidents are caused by human error. An analysis of that data by an insurance industry group says automated vehicles could prevent half of those.

An extra 600,000 humans — a population equivalent to the city of Boston, every single year — is nothing to sneeze at. And that number, more than anything else, is what will push driverless cars into the mainstream.

“Our biggest challenge isn’t technology,” Burns says. “It’s convincing consumers and regulators that a driverless car is meaningfully safer than one driven by a person. It’s just a matter of accumulating the miles and the data so that people can understand and accept this.”

3. Car repairs will be more expensive but less frequent.
Adding high-tech gear to your ride will make it considerably more complex and expensive to repair. At the same time, though, fewer accidents will mean you’ll spend far less time in the shop. And your car may be smart enough to diagnose itself on the fly and alert you to problems before they become serious, says Jeffrey Miller, a professor of engineering at USC and a member of the IEEE’s Vehicular Technology Society.

Illustration of driverless cars on an interestate
Illustration of driverless cars on an interestate

In few years vehicle-to-vehicle communication will be standard on all new cars, enabling them to detect and avoid other nearby objects. (U.S. Department of Transportation)

“When cars are connected, mechanics will be able to diagnose vehicular problems in real time,” says Miller, who specializes in vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. “So when the ‘check engine’ light comes on, they can tell you whether it’s just a bad sensor or if you need to pull over right now before your car explodes.”

4. Your insurance rates will probably decrease … slightly.
The number of auto insurance claims filed each year has declined more or less steadily since 1996. The primary reason: enhanced safety technology inside cars, says James Lynch, director of research and information services for the Insurance Information Institute.

The dollar amount of claims over that time, however, has remained relatively steady, primarily due to rampant inflation in medical costs and increases in the cost of auto body repairs.

Because driverless cars will likely be much safer, the number of claims from accidents will probably drop significantly, Lynch says. But the damage that does occur will probably be more expensive to repair, which will cut the savings somewhat. And there will still be other kinds of accidents that driverless cars are powerless to prevent.

“Cars will still be stolen,” Lynch says. “Trees will still fall on them. People will still bang shopping carts into them in parking lots. The day we don’t need some kind of auto insurance is quite a long ways away, if it comes at all.”

5. Laws will be rewritten.
Before driverless cars become an everyday reality, laws will likely change. Today, only four states — California, Florida, Michigan, and Nevada — and the District of Columbia have issued explicit regulations regarding autonomous vehicles. Another 10 states are currently considering bills.

U.S. map showing status of driverless car legislation by state
U.S. map showing status of driverless car legislation by state

Only a handful of states have laws regulating driverless cars, and most allow them only for on-road testing. (Center for Internet and Society)

That doesn’t necessarily mean driverless cars are illegal in other states, says Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina and an affiliate scholar at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society. But it’s likely more states will adopt laws regarding semi- and fully autonomous vehicles, which may vary from place to place.

University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo has called for the formation of a federal robotics commission to advise other government agencies about emerging technologies like drones and driverless cars. He says we are also likely to see new federal safety standards coming from NHTSA.

But many of the changes will consist of what Calo calls “clearing the legal underbrush” — getting rid of laws that will become antiquated, such as those banning texting while driving or tailgating. (Driverless cars are likely to follow very closely together to minimize fuel use.)

Also, a modern rite of passage may disappear: Teenagers may no longer have to worry about passing their driver’s tests.

6. You might still get sued for running over your neighbor’s cat.
When your car is driving itself, who’s responsible when there’s an accident — you or the car’s manufacturer?

The answer won’t be that much different than it is today, Smith says. A lot depends on whether you’re talking about criminal or civil liability. If you are using the vehicle as intended, have maintained it properly, and it does something out of your control, you’re unlikely to be prosecuted for any harm it has caused.

NavLab1 robotic car
NavLab1 robotic car

Hitch a ride on the NavLab1, Carnegie Mellon’s first robotic car, circa 1986. (Carnegie Mellon University)

Civil suits are a different matter. Owners may still be liable for failing to properly maintain their vehicles or other harm caused by their cars, Smith says. Carmakers could be held responsible for design flaws or failing to adequately warn drivers about potential dangers. Depending on the state and the circumstances, both parties could be sued, though deep-pocketed manufacturers are the more tempting targets.

Calo doesn’t foresee owners getting sued for damage caused by fully autonomous vehicles, though he thinks more states may embrace no-fault insurance schemes that spread the responsibility equally.

“I think the vast majority of liability suits will center around a design flaw or a manufacturing defect,” he says. “I don’t see too many scenarios where owners of driverless cars will be held responsible.”

7. You may no longer own a car at all.
According to multiple parking studies, most cars spend 90 to 95 percent of their time going nowhere. Once cars can drive themselves, there’s no need for them to just sit there depreciating when they could be giving people rides. That means fewer people will own their own cars; autonomous vehicles are more likely to be shared among groups of individuals, businesses, or other organizations.

You may be able to order an autonomous taxi or private car with a few taps on your phone — like Uber or Lyft but without the chatty driver — and then use your travel time to work or nap instead of keeping your eyes on the road.

This also means you may not have to leave work to drive your aging parents to the doctor or to pick up your kids from soccer practice. Driverless cars will provide greater mobility for the aged, infirm, and those too young to legally drive, says Dr. Raj Rajkumar, professor of computer and electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon.

8. The air will be cleaner.
When driverless cars start being shared, there will be fewer autos clogging the freeways. A study by researchers at the University of Texas in Austin found that each shared autonomous vehicle (SAV) removes another 11 cars from the road. That’s based on just 5 percent of all rides using SAVs, so the actual number could be much higher. That in turn means fewer emissions and less pollution, as well as less traffic congestion and more parking spaces for those who aren’t sharing cars. 

Google's self-driving car
Google's self-driving car

An early prototype (left) and an artist’s rendering of Google’s new, fully autonomous vehicle. Don’t worry, it won’t go faster than 25 mph. (Google)

Driverless cars will be greener in other ways. As they prove safer — and as non-autonomous clunkers are gradually retired — cars can be built from much lighter materials with fewer safety protections, Rajkumar says. This will allow them to be smaller and more efficient, making emissions-free battery powered vehicles more practical.

9. Your car will know where you drove last summer.
If you think your phone and computer reveal a lot of information about you, just wait. Your car will generate even more. And not just driverless cars. Any vehicle that’s connected to the Internet, which is expected to include 90 percent of all new cars by 2020, will produce reams of data about where you go, what you do, and how you drive. At this point, nobody really knows what kind of data cars will collect or how it will be used.

Industry guidelines ensuring the privacy of this data do not yet exist, though they may be on their way, says Catherine McCullough, executive director of the Intelligent Car Coalition, a consortium of technology and telecommunications companies. She says car and tech companies have an incentive to protect their customers’ privacy, lest they risk alienating them.

Tesla car
Tesla car

Tesla can collect a vast amount of data on its connected cars, including their location moment by moment and interior temperature settings. (Reuters)

“These companies don’t want to lose the people they’re trying to sell services to,” she says. “Consumers need to leverage their buying power and make their concerns known to the people who are collecting this data.”

Don’t be surprised if, when signing the loan papers for a new car, you’re also given a privacy statement governing what data the vehicle will collect and how that information will be used. Be sure to read it carefully; that policy may still allow carmakers to sell your information or to deliver personalized ads to your car. It will almost certainly include an exception for law enforcement to access your data, as they can with the event data recorders (aka “black boxes”) that record crash information, which are found in virtually every new car.

10. Your vehicle could be hacked.
As cars become connected, they inevitably open themselves up to cyber attacks. Could a stranger take control of your driverless car? It’s more than theoretically possible; it’s already happened.

In 2011, researchers at the University of Washington and UC San Diego were able to obtain complete control of a car’s internal systems using both Bluetooth and cellular connections. Last year, security researchers were able to take over a Toyota Prius and a Ford Escape by plugging a laptop into the cars’ OBD II ports and hacking into the cars’ operating systems.

As with the privacy of your car’s data, the security of driverless cars is still a work in progress. Both the Society of Automotive Engineers and the IEEE are working on encryption standards for vehicle communications, Capp says.

“Is having your car hacked something you might have to think about? Yes, absolutely,” says Google consultant Burns. “But it’s something I believe will be solved.”

Bottom line? Yes, your autonomous car could get hacked. It may even try to kill you. But without it, you might have died five or 10 years earlier at the hands of a drunken driver. So consider it a tiny theoretical risk with a potentially huge upside.

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.