Autonomous Vehicles – A Cause For Concern?



After the flurry of excitement that followed when Google showed off its self-driving pod prototype last May, voices of concern are now beginning to question whether fully autonomous vehicles are really all sunshine and rainbows that they are made out to be.

Japanese automaker, Toyota, has raised concerns that autonomous vehicles would encourage a wider urban sprawl, resulting in longer commutes and thus increasing fuel consumption and pollution. According to Ken Laberteaux, Senior Principal Scientist from Toyota’s North American team studying future transportation, “US history shows that anytime you make driving easier, there seems to be this inexhaustible desire to live further from things.”

He added, “The pattern we’ve seen for a century is people turn more speed into more travel, rather than maybe saying ‘I’m going to use my reduced travel time by spending more time with my family.'” Laverteaux was speaking at the Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco last week.

Toyota has, like most other automakers, been researching into driverless vehicle technology, but it has said that it was more inclined towards ‘co-piloting’ features rather than complete vehicle independence.

On the other hand, autonomous technology would do away with idling engines at traffic lights, non-stop braking and accelerating, which all contribute to inefficient fuel usage and pollution. So, we wonder whether Laverteaux’s research has a proclivity to support Toyota’s direction, rather than the company’s direction being dictated by the research (here, we utter a loud ‘hmm?’).

Meanwhile, the FBI has also taken an interest in self-driving technology. A newly released report, obtained by The Guardian, highlighted that driverless cars would make the perfect getaway vehicles for criminals and allow them to performs tasks that previously required two hands (shoot at the police while escaping, for instance). The report also stated that the car can be made “more of a potential lethal weapon”, perhaps implying that suicide bombers are no longer required when terrorists can simply pack explosives into an autonomous vehicle.

In the midst of these negative headlines, Nissan has also slammed the brakes on the development of their autonomous vehicles. CEO Carlos Ghosn had previously boasted that Nissan would put its autonomous cars in the market by 2020 or earlier. His optimism seemed to have lowered a few notches in a recent speech he delivered in Japan, during which he outlined the roll-out of driver-assist technology planned by Nissan in the upcoming years: the first will be traffic-jam assist and automated parking by 2016, automatic lane changing by 2018 and intersection handling by 2020; these new features would still require a driver controlling the vehicle for most of the journey.

Ghosn also said in the speech: “Self-driving cars remain a long way from commercial reality.” What happened, Mr Ghosn?

It’s still full steam ahead for Google, though. Alan Mullaly, the former CEO of Ford, a company which he famously turned around, was for a while expected to join Microsoft, but has recently been appointed by Google to its Board of Directors. As Google forges ahead into the car industry with its driverless and in-car connectivity technologies, they could definitely use the experience of a veteran ‘car guy’ like Mullaly.

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