A matter of control

Jelmer Kingma


It is sunny outside, Lena is heading to the beach with some friends in her self-driving car. She only has to say the address to the dashboard computer and the car does the rest. On their way to the beach they play a game of cards, not paying any attention to the traffic around them at all.

Koen is crossing the street and is paying more attention to his phone than to the traffic around him. Lena’s self-driving car is approaching him at a high speed and collision seems unavoidable. Surprisingly, Koen is not harmed in this situation. The autonomous car spotted him several meters down the road. The safest solution to the situation was calculated by the car within a microsecond and could therefore easily come to a halt, avoiding danger. The scenario with Lena and Koen is just one of many that could be seen in a future where autonomous vehicles are used. It all depends, however, in what form we will see this technology in the future and what pathways we have chosen for the implementation of self-driving cars.

The goal for self-driving cars is to run on a complicated system of cameras, software and sensors. The machine scans its complete surroundings multiple times every second and is always aware of the location of other cars due to a connectivity cloud. Based on the maps constructed by technology in the selfdriving car and the connectivity network, in combination with complex algorithms and carefully calculated protocols, the car can drive in public. Currently, the technological capability allows for semi-autonomous cars, meaning the chauffeur still pays attention to the road at all times, and takes over the wheel when needed. Should we give such a technology with the capacity to harm humans the authority to make its own decisions in public? However, one could also ask: should we give inconsistent, careless and disinterested humans that same control over automobiles in traffic? Currently the answer to the latter is ‘yes’, humans chauffeurs are in control over driving their cars. This fact results in 95% of traffic accidents being caused by human errors. This rate is expected to reduce to almost zero when self-driving cars are implemented in traffic and it could saving many lives.

There are four predicted future scenarios and possibilities of self-driving cars analysed by the Dutch Knowledge Institute for Mobility. The first scenario, called “mobility as a service: any time, any place”, is based on public transport. Self-driving busses can be easily ordered via a smartphone application and show up anytime and anywhere you want it to be. Users of this service would just have to pay for the time they used the service, and that’s it. Less people will own a car since self-driving busses offer the same benefits and take away the disadvantages. The drawbacks of owning a car such as the cost for car maintenance, paying your monthly insurance fee or the need to always find a parking space will be eliminated.

Another scenario is the “fully automated private luxury” option. If you don’t have to drive anymore, everybody in the car has the freedom to do whatever they want during the journey. People`s cars are their own luxurious palaces which can serve them in every need. Therefore, making it highly appealing to own your own car, since it literally offers limitless opportunities for its inner design. Private car ownership is highly valued in society.

In the “Letting go on highways” scenario people still have to drive manually in busy cities because the infrastructure and selfdriving car technology is not advanced enough yet. Furthermore, people are not ready yet to fully let go of driving control. However, only on the highways, they do lift their hands of the steering wheel and let the car take over. They trust the self-driving technology because it’s easier for an automated vehicle to maneuverer on a highway than in a busy city. Owning a car is also still highly valued in society.

Finally, the “Multimodal and shared automation” scenario has the same level of trust towards the automated vehicle and technological advancement as the “letting go on highways” option. Only, instead of owning a car, the sharing of one vehicle with multiple people has become the new value in society. People can divide all car related costs, and with the help of smart cloud scheduling software, can still use the car whenever they want.

All the scenarios mentioned above will make traffic much safer than the current situation on our roads. The “fully automated private luxury”, however, will be the safest since all traffic will be self-driving. Combining this with the new option to create your own pleasure palace inside your car make it sound even better. An almost 100% safe traffic situation were every car is completely customized to the needs of each individual in which one can do whatever he wants. Doesn’t that sound great? Unfortunately, before this can be realized, we need to be ready to outsource driving control to a cold and heartless machine. Currently we have not reached this point yet, but I think eventually the pros of self-driving cars will overcome the cons.