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Podcast: Autonomous Cars Will Change Travel Forever

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Podcast featuring Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts and
Dr. Karen Hand, Faculty Member, School of STEM

How people get from place to place will look very different in the not-too-distant future. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU STEM professor Dr. Karen Hand about the evolution of autonomous cars. Learn about the current use of semi-autonomous technology in many of today’s cars, the testing of autonomous semi-trucks transporting goods, and other projects aimed at integrating autonomous vehicles on the roadways. Also learn about road safety benefits, ethical issues, security measures, and how people will need to adjust their thinking about owning and driving their own vehicles.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and today we’re talking to Dr. Karen Hand, Assistant Professor in the School of STEM, and today our conversation is about autonomous cars. Welcome, Karen.

Dr. Karen Hand: Thank you, Bjorn, and I’m very excited to be here today to talk about one of my favorite topics, which is the autonomous car.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And I’m excited to talk about autonomous cars also, because I don’t know much about the technicalities of this, but it’s something that is here today, it’s going to be here in the future, and it has such potential just to save lives. And so that leads us to the first question, which is: What is the current state of the development of autonomous vehicles, and when can we expect to see them on our streets and highways?

Dr. Karen Hand: That’s a great question. When people think of autonomous cars, they often think of Google and Project Waymo, which they see in the news, but the original concept for the autonomous car goes all the way back to the 1939 New York World’s Fair in General Motors’ Futurama exhibit. This was an exhibit that  displayed General Motors’ vision of what the world would look like in 20 years, and it included an automated highway system that would guide self-driving cars, and their car that they envisioned was an electric vehicle guided by radio-controlled electromagnetic fields generated with magnetized metal spikes embedded in the roadway.

Well, they were a little bit off in their estimation of 20 years, but roughly 20 years later, in 1958, General Motors developed a prototype of this car, and it had sensors on the front of the car that were called pickup coils, and the sensors detected current flowing through a wire embedded in the roadway, and manipulating the current would guide the steering wheel to the left or the right.

Development of this idea continued around the world. In the ’70s and ’80s, Japan and Germany each took the idea of the autonomous car a bit further and added cameras to the car, and began developing image-processing software to interpret the data relayed from the cameras, so this concept has really been around and in various stages of development for a very long time.

That brings us up to the present day, and in the present day, we actually see some features of semi-autonomous safety features in many cars being manufactured today, such as assisted parking and braking systems, and then a few, like the Tesla, which people also see a lot in the news, have the ability to drive, steer, brake, and park themselves.

Now, Google is still one of the big players in the development of the autonomous car, and they started their autonomous vehicle project in 2009. So they’ve been doing this for about 12 years, and it’s gone through several different names, and it’s currently called Waymo. And last year, they announced they had hit the 20 million milestone of number of miles driven by autonomous vehicles, so that is a lot of actual testing on the road.

Other countries are similarly testing their autonomous car technologies. For example, last year, German regulators granted Mobileye a permit to test its driverless cars on public roads in real-world traffic, and Mobileye is Intel’s autonomous vehicle division, and this testing in Germany is taking place not only on urban and rural roads, but also on the famous Autobahn.

So then that brings us to the question of when? And that’s a loaded question, because even a few years ago, predictions were made that by the year 2021, there would be a lot of autonomous cars on the roadway. Well, that has not materialized.

In fact, the most recent prediction that I could find was in a 2019 report by Boston Consulting Group and Detroit Mobility Lab that predicted by 2030, more than 10% of cars will be self-driving. However, what has happened since 2019? Oh, the COVID pandemic. It’s quite possible that development has been set back yet again.

So, in reality, from other viewpoints that I’ve read that are emerging, I think the experts agree that we’re really still decades away from fully autonomous cars being widely available. And one reason for this is that there are many obstacles that still need to be overcome, such as the need to upgrade road infrastructure, and to develop communication systems for the cars to communicate with each other, and to communicate with the traffic signals and so on.

We need to pass laws to regulate the use and to address liability issues regarding autonomous vehicles. There’s a need to enhance the security of the systems that will control the vehicles, because the fear of hacking or a compromise in the security is a very concern that needs to be addressed. Always, always, there’s the need to continue to fine-tune the computer programming, the sensors, and the programming of the cars themselves, and how the cars respond under all kinds of conditions.

I think it’ll be a gradual thing, in fact, it already is gradual, both in the sense of certain semi-autonomous features being implemented across the board in new cars. And also gradual in the sense that there are autonomous cars on the roads today being tested, and over time, the percentage of autonomous cars will increase, but we’re still a really long way off from 100% autonomous vehicles, if that ever is attainable.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I was surprised that one of the origins of the autonomous movement was back in 1939. It seems like that’s such a long time ago, and when we think about cars in 1939, there’s great cars, but wow, the fact that they were trying to do it in 1939 at the World’s Fair is quite amazing.

A side little factoid about the 1939 World’s Fair, the music, the main theme at that World’s Fair was written by William Grant Still, who was a great American composer, and that really brings me to, I’m excited about autonomous cars. I don’t want a car. I just want one to come up to my house, I jump in, and then a computer drives me somewhere. I’d love to get rid of our second car, and that way, we only have one car. So how do you envision autonomous vehicles changing society, and what positive impacts do you see them having on our future?

Dr. Karen Hand: Well first, I wholeheartedly agree with you, Bjorn. I actually have not owned a car myself in about eight years. At the time that my last car died, I decided to share a car with a family member, and at the time, I remember saying, “I won’t need to buy another car, because autonomous cars will be coming along soon enough.” Well, the technology may take longer than I envisioned, but adapting my expectations happened much quicker. I no longer see a need for every person to own their own individual car, car-sharing is wonderful.

Like I said, I’ve been sharing a car with a family member, and I work from home, and the family member’s retired, so between us, one car is enough. And when I spent a summer abroad, I was in a big city, and I could call an Uber when I needed to go somewhere, or I could walk or use public transportation, so there are a lot of ways to adapt our thinking away from just every single person in a family owning a car.

The greatest impact would be the improved safety by eliminating human error. And we all know that human error is a huge driver of car accidents. And it can be distracted driving from texting, it could be drowsy driving, falling asleep at the wheel, it could take the form of drunk driving, speeding, reckless driving, road rage, these are all issues that are eliminated when you have an autonomous car.

And how extensive is this problem of human error? Very. According to a 2016 study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, between 94% and 96% of motor vehicle accidents are caused by human error, of all the types I just described.

And what is the impact of this? It’s tremendous. According to the World Health Organization, there are 1.24 million traffic deaths annually in the world. And if you want to look just at the United States, the statistics reported by the Association for Safe International Road Travel are that more than 38,000 people die every year in vehicle crashes on U.S. roadways. An additional 4.4 million are injured seriously enough to require medical attention, and some of these injuries will lead to permanent disabilities. And the economic and societal impact of road crashes costs U.S. citizens an estimated $871 billion annually. So, if we can eliminate these accidents that are occurring due to human error, it could have a tremendous impact on society.

An interesting statistic I read recently is that last year, in 2020, traffic fatalities were up 8%, despite there being less traffic during the pandemic. And that kind of tells me that with less vehicles on the road, a lot of people maybe took advantage of being able to drive faster. You can’t necessarily trust that all humans are going to do the right thing when allowed to, and that is how autonomous cars can help out.

Other impacts on society, other than safety, include increasing mobility for certain populations of people, like the blind, disabled, elderly. Instead of an elderly person having to stop driving at a certain point, they could continue using the autonomous car.

Also, it could lead to more cost-effective and reliable transportation of goods. It’s not just passenger cars that could be autonomous, but tractor-trailers as well, someday.

And then back to the idea of no longer needing a car for every single individual in a family, the autonomous cars will lead to a lot more ride-sharing. It may be that private ownership of them would be discouraged and would be very rare, but instead, ride-sharing would become the norm, so instead of calling an Uber, you just schedule on your app to have an autonomous car pick you up, kind of like a taxi.

And this’ll also affect city planning, because there will be less need for parking lots. You can build more buildings and fewer parking lots, because the car doesn’t need to park during the day, the car can pick up one person, shuttle them to work, go pick up another, shuttle them to work, and so on throughout the day. And if the car has a period of disuse, it can drive itself out to the edge of town and park in a remote parking lot, it doesn’t need to clog up the city by being parked there.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And there are so many wonderful and positive aspects of autonomous cars. The one thing you said where in America, there’s about 38,000 deaths a year from car accidents, which is just absolutely terrible, and that 96% of those are attributed to human error. If we were able to have autonomous cars drive everybody around, and we got rid of those 96% of deaths from human error, that leaves 4%, and so instead of 38,000 people dying, that’s only 1,500 people dying.

And so if 1,500 people died every year from car accidents, where they’re true something happened accident, like mechanical thing that caused the accident or whatever, we could look back at a time when we could literally say, “Can you believe how many people died in the 20th and early 21st centuries from horrible accidents that, well, are now preventable because of autonomous cars?”

That’s something that I think those who are working in the field are striving to do, just to save lives, and it sounds generic and kind of silly when people give speeches like, “We’re just trying to save lives,” this is something where people actually are trying to save lives and can make a definite impact.

I also love the fact that you talked about city planning. Because if people didn’t have to, just an example, go to the grocery store all the time and drive to a grocery store, and the grocery store had a little fleet of mini cars that just delivered your groceries to you, that means that you just order the groceries, it comes and drops off at your house, there’s no you going and having to clog up the roads. I mean, by then, they would probably be battery-powered, and I know these exist somewhat today, but they’re very limited. Can you think of any other examples that really get you excited about the impact of autonomous cars?

Dr. Karen Hand: Well, I can think of something related to autonomous cars that sort of fits the scenario you just gave, and that would also be the use of drones in addition to autonomous cars. You might not even need a car to deliver your groceries, it might be delivered by a drone that would just fly the groceries to your house and delicately drop the bags on your front porch.

So I kind of think that a lot of these technologies are going to work together, in tandem, they’re going to coordinate, because not only, like you said, there’ll be fewer humans clogging up all the stores, but the addition of drones that can be used to fly goods and necessities to people will eliminate the streets being clogged up by too many autonomous cars. There could be just the right number of cars to shuttle the people around while the goods are being delivered through drones.

And then another exciting use with the drones that are being developed for that purpose is to fly emergency medical equipment and other necessities into areas that’ve been affected by a natural disaster, where no car, whether autonomous or not, will necessarily be able to go in there. Either a drone could carry it in, or robots which are also being developed could walk through the rubble and carry something in to survivors, or possibly even retrieve survivors and bring them out.

So I would say to think beyond just the autonomous cars, and think also of the other technologies that are being developed alongside them, and how different our society could look, and how differently it could function with all these different technologies working in tandem.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree, there’s so many positives that come about with autonomous cars. And so this leads me to the next question about autonomous cars, is what are some of the hesitancies people have about autonomous cars, and what can be done to address these concerns?

Dr. Karen Hand: I can think of three major categories for these hesitancies, and number one may be the one you hear about the most, is people don’t want to give up control, they don’t trust computers. Well, I think that for one thing, this brings up the issue of having to consider what is good for society versus just what each individual wants. The statistics speak for themselves, and once the technology is perfected to the point that safety can be ensured, then it’s important that we begin to transition to autonomous cars as a society.

So how do you address the fact that people don’t want to give up control? I would say for one thing, it’s already being addressed through a gradual transition, the semi-autonomous features being introduced to cars.

People might think, “Oh, well I hate parallel parking, I think this assisted parking is great,” and so they enjoy that feature. And they can understand the braking systems, yes, if the brakes can automatically brake the car to avoid a collision, people agree that that’s a good thing. Meanwhile, they’re still enjoying the autonomy of being behind the wheel, but they’re being gradually conditioned to allow the car to take over in more and more scenarios. So I think that will be part of it, will be a gradual transition.

Part of that transition, I think, would be a human override. At some point, when the autonomous features are perfected enough to be released and widely used, there may initially be a human override mechanism, where a human could take control. I’m not convinced that that’s a good feature to leave in the cars long-term though. Because I think that could very well be misused, and as we know that human error is the leading cause of accidents, that probably is not part of the long-term strategy, but in the short term, I could see that assisting with the transition.

And then finally, because it does come down to an issue of safety, an effective public safety campaign would have to be done. Just like right now there’s a vaccination safety campaign to ease people’s worries or concerns about getting the COVID vaccine. Well, the same thing when autonomous cars are ready to be more widely deployed, we’ll need a public safety campaign to reassure people.

So that’s one category of hesitancies. The next one would be the fear of hackers, and that’s a valid fear. Computer hacking is something that will always be with us, it creates the entire field of computer security, and there are great jobs in that field. So I would say that on the autonomous cars, computer security is going to rank as one of the highest priorities, and this technology will not be widely released until they really feel that they’re confident in their security of the systems.

And then the third category where people have some hesitancies would be the loss of jobs, truckers won’t be needed if the tractor-trailers become autonomous. But, actually, I think the more exciting thing to look at is what jobs will autonomous cars create? So if you focus on that and consider all the new jobs that could be created, that would allow people who currently drive for a living to retrain for some of the new jobs.

And I’ve researched the types of jobs that are expected to emerge, and I actually find it quite exciting, because first and foremost, there are the engineers, and engineers for the autonomous cars need to have cross-functional skills in many areas, like math, physics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, data science, and software development.

Then there are the information security specialists that we just talked about, because the security in order to prevent hacking is so important. Data management specialists, because the amount of data that will be generated by these cars and will have to be coordinated for the cars to communicate with each other and with the network in order to ensure safe transportation is going to be an immense amount of data.

And then moving away from the computer jobs, there are going to be plenty of skilled trade workers needed, such as mechanics specializing in autonomous vehicles, and specializing in electric vehicles, because that will also probably go alongside with this in development.

There will also be a lot of manufacturing jobs created to manufacture the cars themselves, but also to manufacture components, like the batteries, the sensors. And managers will be needed, and support staff, transportation managers to manage the fleets of shared vehicles, for example.

And finally, even the entertainment and marketing sector, this could increase some jobs. Because the amount of time typically wasted on driving can now be spent by the person riding in the vehicle consuming entertainment, advertisements, other media, so it even creates some opportunities there. So I think that more jobs will be created than eliminated, I think that it will just require retraining and adopting a new model moving forward.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And those are all absolutely wonderful points. And really with autonomous cars, it makes me think of different technological transitions in the past, when we went from horse and buggy to, well, cars. There was an entire industry of horse and buggies and taking care of horses that disappeared over about one generation.

If people have an issue with autonomous cars, what will happen, most likely, is that an entire generation will grow up, as you said, slowly getting used to autonomous cars, and then they’ll be used to it, and people who aren’t, it’s okay because then they will grow older with it also. There’s so many things that happen, just say naturally as people age, and say generational shifts.

And the one thing I really liked, which you said, was the jobs are a huge concern, but there are so many opportunities that are exciting, and even one, like you said, is just the infrastructure. We need people to continue to improve our infrastructure, because if the infrastructure’s poor, autonomous cars are going to be, well, crashing, because of bad roads. To have kind of a well-functioning country anywhere, you need good infrastructure, and that really leads us to the last question, is do autonomous cars raise any ethical concerns, and how can those be addressed?

Dr. Karen Hand: That’s a very tricky issue. There are several ethical concerns that do need to be addressed. And the big one that people think about is what will the car do if it’s in a scenario where it has to choose between crashing into another car or veering away to avoid that accident, but hitting a bicycle or a pedestrian, for example? What should it do? And how would the car be programmed to handle that?

And that actually sounds an awful lot like the classic trolley problem, where there’s a runaway trolley driving down a track, and it will run into and kill five workmen unless you flip a switch and divert the train down a different track, where it will only kill one workman.

Answering the question of what should the car do when faced with a choice, this is very difficult. You could consider interviewing a philosophy professor and they may have more to say about that, but I would say that the principle to do the least harm possible, and to do harm to the fewest people, should really be the driving principle there.

And then that also brings up the issue of should humans have override control? Well again, in a situation like that, I mean, the human would then be faced with the same dilemma. I don’t know that that would really solve anything in an ethical sense either.

Another ethical concern would be liability, like who is liable in the case of an accident? If the car is autonomous and the person is not driving, does that absolve them of liability? Well yes, it probably should, so then is the auto manufacturer liable? Or is it the company that wrote the software that is making the decisions? And so on, and who is responsible for carrying insurance on the car and so on?

And again, these are areas that can be better addressed, and will be, certainly will be addressed by legal experts, and this also leads up to the need for regulation. Before the autonomous cars can be released for use by the general public, a lot of regulations, new laws, will have to be passed, and regulations will have to be put into place that will answer some of these questions.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And those are all great examples, and ethical concerns are always important to consider, but in many ways, they can just be theoretical. And I really like that you talked about the trolley example, because one of the weaknesses, I think, of that line of, I guess I can say thinking or philosophizing, is in the trolley example, do you choose this way and unintentionally kill five people, or this way, is when accidents occur, they happen oftentimes in a split second.

And so humans logically will, like you said, choose the path for least harm, which could be, unfortunately, killing one person. But in the moment, people make the wrong decision. And so even by programming a car to try to choose the path of least harm, the computer is more apt to choosing that correct path than a human. Humans are extraordinarily infallible, and so we can make the wrong decision even when we think we’re 100% making the right decision, especially in stressful situations. And if you take those stressful situations away from us, and they’re in a computer, I’ll vote for the computer.

Dr. Karen Hand: I agree with that.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And there’s other ethical situations, even losing jobs could be an ethical situation. Where thousands and thousands of truck drivers are going to lose their jobs over the next 20 years, but some of them might retire because they’re older, some of them will transition. And it’s also one of those things that we as humans have to constantly change, and it’s difficult to change, and that’s a very difficult situation, conversation that every person has to have, and it’s always unfortunate when you hear public policy people talking, and they’re like, “Oh, just retrain.”

Well, they might live in a locality, and they’ve always lived in that locality, maybe for a few generations, and they’re really connected to where they live, and people are just saying, “Well, just move.” And it’s more difficult, because humans have emotions that are then connected to these ethical concerns, and so like anything, all conversations that happen have to be sensitive and well-thought-out. And so at this point, really great questions, great conversation about autonomous cars, any last thoughts or ideas, Karen?

Dr. Karen Hand: My final thought would just be along the lines of what you said, that change is inevitable. And this technology is coming, and overall, this is going to be a very good thing. Will it be a difficult transition in some ways? Of course it will.

And also the point you made earlier about how new generations that come along that are born into a world that already has this technology, they’ll look back and be shocked that we used to cause so many traffic deaths every year.

So the main thing is that people really do need to work on adjusting their thinking about this. People are used to thinking of their car as an extension of their home, and keeping a lot of belongings in it. Well, okay, you can’t do that, you might have to carry a backpack or briefcase or something with your things, because you’re going to be riding in shared vehicles. But these are adjustments that we can make.

And the era of people just going out and joyriding, that’s just going to have to come to an end, and it’s another case where we do have to think about what is good for society as a whole, and not just for what each individual wants.

Like the saying goes, “Your rights end where mine begin,” so if somebody says to me, “But I just enjoy riding,” I would say, “Well, I enjoy knowing that I’m safe on the roads and knowing that I’m not risking my life unnecessarily by going out on the roads.” And so this technology would work best if we had 100% autonomous cars, because when we have,I think during the gradual transition where we have both on the road, no matter how good the programming is for the autonomous cars, and no matter how many safety features are put in, human error in the human-driven cars will still be a potential risk for accident to any car. So I think people need to start expanding their thoughts beyond just their own personal preferences, and really do need to start thinking more about how to design a society that is safer and better for all people.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree, and in a future generation, if they look back and think, “Wow, 38,000 people died every year, and then with autonomous cars, that dropped to only 1,500 people per year because of actual accidents that are unavoidable.” That is something that you have to do, and just like you said, my rights begin and end when the person next to me, their rights begin and end. And even then, I can see an entire industry, I live in Arizona, and there are literally hundreds of miles of roads where there are no people on them.

Out here in the West, and in the Midwest too, there’s just hundreds and hundreds of miles of roads, where there are not people for miles, and you could have entire sections of a state just blocked off, with like a hotel, and at that hotel, they’ve got every car imaginable, from a Model T to like a Ford Mustang, and people come out and they vacation, and they drive those cars themselves.

It’s a very specific location and it’s fun, but in the cities, everything’s autonomous where we travel back and forth, and so where most of the possible accidents occur, autonomous cars take over. And so the capitalist in me is thinking, “Okay, let’s set up some hotels and some things, and let’s collect all the old cars, and people can go have fun,” and it still gives people that freedom to enjoy cars in the future.

Dr. Karen Hand: I agree with that. In a controlled manner where a certain area is designated just for driving cars and people want to take that risk upon themselves, definitely. I think as long as the two networks are separated and you have your area where people can go and drive just for the fun of it, and then you have your autonomous networks that have those safety features built-in, I think that that’s a very workable solution.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Right, and I think as with anything, it’ll be a generational change, unfortunately won’t happen by 2020, it’ll take a while, even by 2030, like you said, maybe 10%. I hope it’s more than 10%, but I’m really looking forward to it changing over our lifetime. I’d like to thank you, Karen, this was an absolutely wonderful conversation, and I think we’re all really hopeful for autonomous cars to change, and honestly, for it to change quicker.

And so today, we were speaking with Dr. Karen Hand about autonomous cars, and my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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