While my girlfriend drove on a particularly pot-holed section of the highway the other day, I asked if she would ever buy a self-driving car. She said she wouldn’t—the idea gives us both anxiety—but reiterated the fact that the automatic brakes on her Subaru SUV “saved her life.” After being cut off on the highway, her car braked before she could. Her car also has a backup camera and side view cameras, cruise control that automatically distances itself from the car ahead, push button start, GPS, and a self-closing trunk. Her car is run by a computer, but she is still at the helm. As
At the center of my anxiety, and I would imagine droves of others—including my girlfriend’s—is trust and control. It’s something I struggle with in general—relationships, striving towards being a better person, and balancing my desires with my responsibilities. Relinquishing control to a computer system and trusting it with my life is a big step.
The recent death of a woman in Phoenix, Arizona who was struck by an Uber self-driving car raises further questions. The investigation is still under way, as it appears that the woman moved suddenly in front of the vehicle. Sylvia Moir, Tempe’s police chief, said, “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode.” Regardless, there are a lot of uncertainties regarding the future of autonomous vehicles.
But before I can even consider trusting a computer—a robot, really—I need to trust the deteriorating roads and bridges that are being driven on.
I suppose that I should be happy that I “won’t likely find many [self-driving cars] in a dealer showroom for at least 10 years,” according to a July article in Business Insider. Some of this has to do with the continued technological developments, some of this has to do with local, state, and federal regulations, and some of this simply comes down to money: “Ensuring cars can communicate with each other will require industry investment; their ability to converse with roads, pavement markings, road signs, and traffic signals will need government support.”
Not to mention that, essentially, American infrastructure is in shambles. This is one of the reasons why President Trump promised a “$1 trillion infrastructure bill during the campaign.” His newest proposal is spending $200 billion over the next decade, with the hope that state and local governments will contribute the rest of the $800 billion. Thousands of bridges are structurally deficient, roadways are in decay, and rail systems are beyond capacity. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2017 infrastructure report card gave the country a grade of D+. In 2016, 9.1% of bridges, or 56,007, were ruled structurally deficient with “188 million trips across a structurally deficient bridge each day.” The ASCE reports that “the most recent estimate puts the nation’s backlog of bridge rehabilitation needs at $123 billion. That’s not to mention that “one out of every five miles of highway pavement is in poor condition and our roads have a significant and increasing backlog of rehabilitation needs.”
How can we possibly afford to create the infrastructure for self-driving cars when we can’t afford to fix the roads and bridges that they are supposed to drive on?
As Dan Veoni reports for The Hill, “transportation experts indicate the change needed to properly support automated vehicles is akin to the change [that] took place when cars replaced horse and buggies in the early 20th Century.”
A fully autonomous car—a car driving itself under any conditions—“will require near-perfect roads with strong lane markings, extremely accurate maps updated instantaneously, and for now, no ice and snow.” California alone is estimated to require $130 billion in road repairs, and the Department of Transportation states that the majority of states require massive repairs on more than half of their roads.
It doesn’t matter if we’ve created the technology for autonomous vehicles if we don’t have the infrastructure to use them.
Sure, the potential economic boom of self-driving vehicles will be gigantic. The Wall Street Journal reports that “the market for autonomous vehicles and advanced driver-assistance systems, like automated braking, is projected to grow to $96 billion by 2025 from $3 billion in 2015, according to a Goldman Sachs report.” But states will have to agree on standards, and somehow the country is going to need to figure out where the money is going to come from before we can drive into a brave new world.
Photo: Getty Images