Autonomous cars offer significant promise, ranging from fewer accidents and less traffic congestion to increased mobility for the elderly, people with disabilities and low-income citizens, as well as increased ridesharing and ride hailing opportunities. Then again, although it sometimes seems as if there is near-daily news about the cars or necessary technology are in the immediate future, considerable concern remains about how—exactly—such a future would come to pass.

 

For example, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation last week which allows operation of autonomous vehicles on Michigan roads. The bill will allow for automated vehicle platoons (“numerous vehicles traveling together on the highway at electronically coordinated speeds”) and authorizes on-demand autonomous vehicle networks.

 

General Motors followed that news by announcing it will immediately begin testing autonomous vehicles on public roads. GM is already testing autonomous cars on its Technical Center campus in Warren, Mich. In the next few months, however, its testing will expand to metro Detroit, which will become GM’s main location for development of autonomous technology in winter climates.

 

“Revolutionizing transportation for our customers while improving safety on roads is the goal of our autonomous vehicle technology, and today’s announcement gets us one step closer to making this vision a reality,” GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra said. “Our autonomous technology will be reliable and safe, as customers have come to expect from any of our vehicles.”

 

The flip side of the coin is that while consumers are assured—some might say, relentlessly—that autonomous cars will save lives, reduce accidents, ease congestion, lessen energy consumption and lower harmful emissions, proving those claims is difficult. Consider, for instance, the potential safety benefits of self-driving cars, which may include avoiding tens of thousands of highway deaths each year. Jamie Lincoln Kitman, an attorney and the New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine, recently wrote a New York Times op-ed noting that no one knows for sure how many lives could be saved by driverless cars because data on the role of human error in crashes is incomplete and misleading, relying heavily on self-reporting. The types of accidents society would face if autonomous cars ran in close proximity at high speed, may be fewer, but they’ll be new, different, unpredictable and, “on occasion, larger and more grisly than the ones we know today,” Kitman writes.

 

Infrastructure is another question. Significant investments in new infrastructure are necessary, but significant investments in old infrastructure will likewise be needed. Many autonomous cars require smooth roads, with clearly painted lines, to safely position themselves, Kitman notes. Potholes, worn paint and other irregularities—standard fare on too many roads—will potentially become even greater safety hazards than they are now, Kitman continues. This clearly begs the question: Where will the resources to maintain and repair roads and bridges, an effort already underfunded by more than a trillion dollars, come from?

 

Finally, consumers have significant security concerns about autonomous cars. According to research earlier this year, 42 percent of the surveyed Americans support efforts to make cars even more connected, but 62 percent of the respondents said they fear cars in the future will be easily hacked. Senator Edward J. Markey, D., Mass, attempted to address automobile security issues at congressional hearings—proposing rules governing consumer privacy and antihacking requirements—but as Kitman points out in the op-ed piece, the invited companies balked at regulation.

 

When it comes to the practical direction of technology, the government, Kitman writes, too often defers to industry. Shouldn’t society have a say in what amounts to a public works project larger than the Interstate System of highways, essentially run by and for private industry, but underwritten by taxpayers, Kitman questions.

 

What are your thoughts? Are driverless cars the way of the future? If so, who should foot the bill?