Mulugeta: Iowa’s future in autonomous cars


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The future is now. Or coming soon, anyway.

Johnson County, Iowa, is among one of the first counties in the country to allow driverless cars on county roads for research purposes. Mark Nolte, the president of Iowa City Area Development Group, backs the move and wants to bring companies such as Google, a pioneer of this technology, to the state. He has pitched the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator as well as state roads as ideal testing grounds for the cars. USA Today reports that cities including Iowa City, Coralville, and North Liberty have the option to craft their own resolutions on the matter.

While there is a lot of progress to be made, because they are still in their beta stages, I believe that fully realized autonomous cars will improve and expand on the possibilities of daily life. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that more than 33,000 Americans were killed in 2012 in highway traffic deaths. Most of these were caused by distraction, alcohol, and fatigue. The popularization of self-driving cars will eliminate these factors from driving entirely.

Moving forward, we will not be forced to accept these atrocious numbers as the unfortunate costs of driving, and human transport will enter a new age.

The Department of Transportation reports that every two hours, three people are killed in alcohol-related accidents. Getting home safely after a night out will be easier than ever, something a town such as Iowa City definitely needs. People won’t have to choose between driving drunk or taking a cab. Your car will drive you home. The monumental victory here should not be understated: self-driving cars will end not only drunk driving but also texting while driving.  After entering the destination, passengers will be free to text, read, eat, or even sleep.

These cars could also benefit the elderly, disabled, and young. The visually impaired would no longer be a danger to themselves or other drivers, those with disabilities could regain the ability to travel free of assistance, and people under 16 could be trusted to “drive” to a friends house unaccompanied. With parental permission, of course.

Such cars will be programmed to communicate with each other, and this feature could end the horrors of traffic and searching for parking in packed areas. These cars will travel at steadier and more predictable paces and could in theory nullify traffic jams and congestion.

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, robotic drivers will be far more efficient than human drivers, and this will result in lower fuel consumption. This means fewer carbon emissions and owners paying for gas less frequently.

Like all innovations, challenges do lie ahead. Most concerning is the eventual and likely elimination of driving-related job markets. Taxi and limo drivers, chauffeurs and valets will ultimately be replaced by their robotic counterparts. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were 233,000 taxi drivers and chauffeurs in 2012. A void that large will mean a great deal of hardship for these workers.

Also, the post self-driving legal landscape has yet to be mapped. Autonomous cars have been shown to have impressive braking ability, but in the event a car strikes a pedestrian, and the car is to blame, whose fault is it?

Also, these cars depend heavily on their connection to GPS satellites. If the signal is blocked by a tunnel or other interference, then what? Logistical questions such as this remind us that this technology is still in its developmental phase. Even a tiny smart phone loses signal from time to time.  

We’re still years from Google-made self-driving cars being customary, but this writer is eagerly anticipating the biggest change to the automotive world since airbags or seatbelts.

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