The Guardian today asked if we would ride in one of Google's self-driving cars. The massive Internet company has recently received a licence to test their automated system in Nevada, and this is clearly the way of the future. So, would I ride in one of these futuristic contraptions? Absolutely. There are conditions, though.
The Human Factor
The biggest stumbling block to robotic cars are humans. The people in the car, the people who designed the car and, more importantly, the people outside the car. Any one of these groups can get in the way of the overall safety and reliability of a decision-making robot.
The first item, the people in the car, is perhaps the easiest one to overcome. In my case, if my family and I had a self-driving car, it would completely change the way that we commute from place to place. No longer would we be focusing on what's going on outside the vehicle. Instead, the car would become a mode of transportation no different from a bus, taxi, or train. We'd get in, say where we want to go, and occupy ourselves in some fashion while the vehicle does its thing. Naturally we would want to have the option to override the machine and drive in manual mode, but the first few generations of robotic machines would undoubtedly allow this very easily.
The second item is a little more difficult to deal with, as it involves a great deal of trust. We will have to put our trust into a group of people that we hope have our best interests in mind. This is true anywhere we may go in life but, unlike the times we step onto a bus, we have little-to-no way of defending ourselves if the vehicle decides it's going to drive off a cliff. How many nines of accuracy will the software have? If anything were to happen, who would ultimately be held responsible for any damages incurred? Is the owner of the vehicle responsible for everything that machine does? We have yet to answer these questions about the technology that we use so much in our day-to-day lives, but they must be resolved before I splurge on the luxury of an automated car.
The final item is the biggest issue I have; the people outside of the car. If I'm in a nice robotic car that's carrying me safely down the highway at a healthy 120 kilometers per hour or so, will the vehicle be able to quickly react to that one idiot on the road who does not have a robotic car and feels he can drive on a highway after an evening of heavy drinking? Humans can barely react fast enough to other people on the road, so how will a machine be able to determine another vehicle is a threat and take appropriate action? In futuristic movies we see highways that are dedicated to robotic vehicles only, with everyone moving at very high speeds in a very tight formation, but this isn't going to happen in reality until intelligent vehicles reach critical mass in a country ... which could be decades.
Yes ... But Not Right Now
At the end of the day, I would absolutely love to have the opportunity to step into a car and have it take me and my family wherever we wish to go. Heck, I would love to have the option to ask the car to come pick me up at the train station after a long day at work so that the wife can stay home and relax. Want to watch a sports event but don't want to pay 1,200円 for parking? Send the car home! It'll cost less in gas to go home for a few hours and return than it would to park in an over-crowded lot next to the stadium, anyway. Want to go shopping at a crowded mall? Tell the car to drop you off at the front doors then go find itself a parking spot. Why waste the better part of an hour looking for 3 square meters to put your vehicle?
Who wouldn't want to have this kind of luxury?
The problem, though, is that we will need to hand our lives over to a machine where no human is (realistically) held accountable for our safety, and that's a tough pill to swallow when there are idiots all around us who will pose a much greater danger to us than any software bug.