Driverless vehicles: great potential, but let’s not speed through

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Google Driverless Car Prototype. Photo by Steve Jurvetson. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

The days of poor driving and road rage could be coming to an end, with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) beginning to study driverless vehicles as a viable mode of transport in Singapore.

Starting end of this year, the LTA will test a fleet of driverless buggies in Jurong Lake District and on Sentosa, in conjunction with the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology.

Also known as autonomous vehicles, these cars use an array of sensors to navigate roads and avoid obstacles autonomously, transporting passengers to and fro without any human input.

As futuristic as it sounds, driverless cars in the public sphere are not a new concept.

Heathrow airport has been shuttling passengers between its car parks and main building with driverless pods since 2011.

Google, which recently released a driverless prototype without a steering wheel and any pedals, has been testing an older prototype on the streets of California for over 3 years.

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Google’s self-driving car is capable of detecting and avoiding traffic cones. Screengrab from Google’s YouTube video.

Governments and developers around the world are eager to conduct public trials, especially Singapore. And with the benefits driverless cars potentially bring, it isn’t hard to see why.

With human error accounting for a staggering 90 per cent of road accidents, removing humans from the decision making process could potentially save millions of lives.

Organisational productivity stands to gain as well. Going driverless reduces the heavy manpower reliance in transport and dispatch industries, freeing up staff to carry out higher-end activities.

A driverless system also addresses the problem of rebalancing in car sharing, where drivers are unable to use a shared car because it is parked somewhere else. Driverless cars promise to solve this and finally make car sharing a feasible concept in Singapore. This in turn would reduce the demand for new cars and, finally, rush hour congestion.

Naturally, there are issues that need to be ironed out. Some are obvious, like legal issues of who’s to be held liable in the event of an accident.

However, the biggest issue lies in its very core: automation. Driverless vehicles are to drivers what automated elevators were to elevator operators. Taxi and bus drivers will become obsolete, and unless companies are willing to invest the cost savings to train them for higher-end jobs, this could spell higher unemployment and a worsening income gap between the skilled and less skilled.

Hacking presents a novel problem altogether. The Internet of Things has become a lucrative goldmine for cyber crime, and driverless cars are no exception. One can only imagine the damage cyber criminals could inflict with an army of hacked vehicles plying the streets.

Developers and regulators won’t have an easy time convincing the public that driverless cars are safe and beneficial to all. Given the complexity and novelty of the potential hiccups, it would be wise for both parties to take their time and not rush to introduce them to the streets.

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Sample from I, Robot. © 20th Century Fox

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