Dec

23

"The automakers and high-tech companies spending billions of dollars on developing self-driving cars and trucks tout the idea that autonomous vehicles (AVs) will help create a safer, cleaner, and more mobile society. Politicians aren't far behind in their enthusiasm for the new technology. "This is probably the biggest thing to hit the auto industry since the first car came off the assembly line," Senator Gary Peters (D–MI) told a cheering audience of researchers and executives at a recent computing conference in Washington, D.C. "It will not only completely revolutionize the way we get around, but [AVs] also have the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives each year."

Such predictions, however, turn out to be based on surprisingly little research. While developers amass data on the sensors and algorithms that allow cars to drive themselves, research on the social, economic, and environmental effects of AVs is sparse. Truly autonomous driving is still decades away, according to most transportation experts. And because it's hard to study something that doesn't yet exist, the void has been filled by speculation—and starkly contrasting visions of the future. "The current conversation … falls into what I call the utopian and dystopian views," says Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California (UC), Berkeley."

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