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The research question I chose was “Could Driverless Vehicles Pose A Negative Impact on Today’s Society?” I chose this research question because I am interested in cars and developments to do with them. I also watch a TV show called “Click” that is on BBC every weekend. On this show, the presenters give weekly stories about technological and environmental advances around the world. One week when I was watching this show, a large segment of it was dedicated to driverless cars in Arizona.
This interested me as I hadn’t heard much about driverless cars until then, and even then, I was surprised at how far the technology had advanced. This question relates to the heading “An Application of Science that has an Effect on Society,” as when driverless vehicles are introduced around the world, it will be a substantial change. It will affect people and how they live their lives. It will change the way we think about vehicles and travel forever.
It will completely modernize travel. It would also result in the loss of millions of jobs, however, such as taxi drivers, bus drivers and truck drivers. This could be a very positive thing for the world though, as it could possibly help the environment, increase space for property and reduce the number of people who die on roads exponentially.
A driverless vehicle, also known as an autonomous vehicle or self-driving car, is a car that can move and guide itself without human input. These vehicles use combinations of sensors, cameras, radar (a system for detecting the presence, direction, distance, and speed of aircraft, ships, and other objects, by sending out pulses of high-frequency electromagnetic waves that are reflected off the object back to the source)(1) and AI (artificial intelligence, the ability of a digital computer or computer-controlled robot to perform tasks commonly associated with intelligent beings)(2) to travel between destinations without a human operator.
To qualify as fully autonomous, a vehicle must be able to navigate without human intervention to a predetermined destination over roads that have not been adapted for its use. If any form of human control or intervention is needed, the car will not be classed as fully autonomous. (3)(4)(5)
There are five levels of autonomy in a car, with “Level One” having minimal levels of assistance to the driver, for example, adaptive cruise control. Adaptive cruise control is described as “a system in an automobile that can automatically adjust the settings of the cruise control in response to external driving conditions” (6). “Level Five” is full automation and means that the vehicle will be able to function without human assistance and react correctly in situations that may arise while driving. The levels between one and five have varying degrees of human/automation control and may be preferred over fully automated vehicles.
This technology is not yet ready for roads around the world, in fact, at 2019’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which is a major showcase for driverless technology, driverless car manufacturers minimized expectations of the imminent arrival of this new technology. The most prominent voice was that of John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, whose driverless taxi service still has a human driver in the front seat. He said that we are probably “decades” away from fully self-driving cars being common on roads, and even when they are common, they will need a driver behind the wheel in poor weather, as sensors may not work properly in rain and snow. (7)
Testing “Level Four” and “Level Five” is currently going on in certain places around the world. One place where testing is taking place, is in Phoenix, Arizona. In August 2015, Governor Doug Ducey signed an executive order allowing the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads in this area. The vehicles must always have a human driver monitoring the car while the car is driving, to prevent accidents from happening. Toyota, Waymo and Tesla are some of the companies who have moved their autonomous vehicle research headquarters to Arizona. Toyota is one of the companies that is testing autonomous vehicles – mainly cars – in Phoenix. Richard Woodroffe, (Toyota’s Arizona proving-ground manager) said that “The Phoenix area specifically also has relatively low winds and a temperature range that is conducive to completing regulatory tests almost every day of the year,” and that the state’s weather conditions are the main reason for the facility being placed in the state. (8)(9)(10)
So far, in the testing of driverless vehicles, there have been over 70 accidents involving them in America (the primary location of driverless vehicle testing). In 2018, there were 28 rear-end crashes involving driverless vehicles and over 10 pedestrian fatalities. There were 6 serious crashes with driver fatalities, 4 of which were Tesla drivers, driving the Tesla Model S. This driverless car also caused a pedestrian fatality in April 2019. An official police report said that the Tesla had left a freeway in Florida and was travelling at a very fast speed when it slammed into a Honda Civic at an intersection. The man and woman in the Honda both died at the scene while the Tesla passengers were hospitalized with “non-life-threatening injuries”. Google’s self–driving cars have been in 30 accidents while testing in America. (11)(12)
Many people are opposed to driverless vehicles as when they see anything in the news about driverless cars, they mostly see accidents and deaths. They don’t usually see advancements or good things that come out of these developments. People are afraid to trust this technology as they haven’t seen fully capable and safe technology. This will be a challenge to manufacturers as they will need to get consumers to trust the technology if it is to be successful.
Another problem people have, regarding driverless cars, is that consumers will not know how much data the cars will be gathering. Manufacturers have said that the cars will need to collect data about how the vehicles handle situations. This data will be used to help the technology learn what the best choice in every situation will be. It will also be shared with other vehicles to help them also increase their knowledge. Some people worry about the amounts of data that manufacturers will gather. (13)
As these driverless vehicles will not need drivers there would be a huge increase in unemployment. This would include the likes of taxi drivers, truck drivers, and public transport vehicle drivers. This would have a detrimental effect on the economy.
The last reason that I found, as to why people would be opposed to having driverless cars on roads is, about the ethical dilemmas involved in choosing how to react to situations that may arise whilst travelling. For example, if there was a dog in the middle of the road, cars in the other lane, and a person on the footpath – would the vehicle swerve to avoid the dog, but risk hitting the pedestrian or other cars, or take no evasive action. It will be difficult to know how the autonomous vehicles will react and deal with these types of situations. We won’t know if they will have been programmed to brake or swerve. (13)
The main reason that people think that driverless cars could help society is that people believe that the technology would reduce car accidents caused by drivers (driver errors). According to the June 2015 early estimate of motor vehicles fatalities from U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an estimated 32,675 people died in car crashes in 2014. The Eno Center for Transportation, a think tank, notes that ‘driver error is believed to be the main reason behind over 90 percent of all crashes’ with drunk driving, distracted drivers, failure to remain in one lane and falling to yield the right of way being the main causes. The impact of having functional driverless cars on the roads could lead to a 95% to 99.99% reduction in total fatalities and injuries on the road. (13) A 2008 survey by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that human error is the critical reason for 93% of crashes. (14) Eliminating this error would, in two years, save as many people as America lost in all of the Vietnam War (58,220). (15)
Another reason why people think that driverless cars would benefit society is they would reduce traffic congestion. A study done by the American Society of Civil Engineers, found that Americans spend more than 6.9 billion hours a year sitting in traffic. A Study of the Potential Energy Consumption Impacts of Connected and Automated Vehicles, a report by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), found that approximately 25% of congestion is caused by traffic incidents, and that decreasing the number of accidents could reduce congestion. The cars would be programmed to move efficiently as they wouldn’t have to stop, or if they did, it would only be for a short amount of time. (16)
As these vehicles will be programmed to move efficiently, they will also be able to be programmed to reduce the amount of CO2 emissions they will release (CO2 refers to a chemical compound made up of one carbon, and two hydrogen atoms. CO2 is a gas that traps heat in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming). (17) The Future of Driving Report from Ohio University states that this could contribute to a 60% fall in emissions. This could help reverse global warming (global warming is an increase in the earth’s atmospheric temperatures due to an increase in the amounts of certain gases such as carbon dioxide). (18) This would improve air quality and towns would be healthier to live in.
The IBI Group (Canadian-based international professional services) estimates that there are up to 8 parking spots/ 1,300 square feet of parking for every automobile in North America. As many autonomous vehicles will be used for taxiing, they won’t need to be parked, and if they do, it would be for a short time. This would save huge amounts of land worldwide that could be used for housing or other socially beneficial purposes, such as hospitals. (19)
When I went online to look for investigations about how many people would feel safe in an autonomous vehicle, I found a website with a survey already done. However, this website (20) required you to sign in before you could see the graph. I got a screengrab of the graph before the sign in page popped up. Then I noticed that the graph did not have percentages to indicate how many people in every category (age) chose yes or no. I decided to measure the lengths of all of the bars and calculate how many people said yes/no in each category. With this information, I created the graph below.
I thought that it would be interesting to find out what age profile would feel safest in an autonomous vehicle. The results of the graph tell us that 66% of 18 to 33 year olds would feel safe in an autonomous vehicle, while only 28% of 65 to 74 year olds would feel safe in one. I calculated that in total, 55% of people wouldn’t feel safe in an automotive vehicle while 45% of people would. More younger people would feel safe in an autonomous vehicle than older people would.
I included these tables in my report, as I thought that it would be interesting to see the difference in numbers of people who have died when autonomous vehicles are not implemented compared to if they were implemented. One of my sources (13) said in their article that road deaths and casualties could be reduced by 97%. Therefore, I calculated – using the table I had made with the RSA data – how many people would die or get injured on Irish roads when autonomous vehicles are introduced.
I chose to use these particular years in my tables, instead of more recent years as it was easier to find these years’ data. The data of these years was all together. This was helpful as it reduced the number of sources that I had to use. It also saved me time as I could just check the one source (13) instead of a number of different sources.
In conclusion, I think that driverless vehicles do not pose a negative threat to today’s society. In fact, I think that autonomous vehicles could improve our society and the way we live. Autonomous vehicles should reduce the number of vehicles on roads and as a result, reduce the number of deaths caused by driver error. According to a survey that I discovered online, I found out that human error is the cause of approximately 93% of crashes. (14) Another source stated that driverless vehicles could result in the reduction of casualties and injuries on roads by up to 99.9%. (13)
As the majority of these vehicles are likely to be electric, they will help tackle global warming by reducing the amount of fossil fuels used, thereby reducing harmful gases emitted into the atmosphere e.g. CO2. (18)
I think that driverless vehicles will help many people, as a lot fewer car parks will be required, this will increase land availability and will allow the land to be used more beneficially for society. (19)
These things would all have a positive effect on our society, and would therefore, not pose a negative threat to today’s society.
I do, however, believe that there is one major drawback to driverless vehicles, that will almost certainly happen. That is the rise in unemployment as a result of this phenomenon. This will have its own impact on society but society has overcome many such challenges in the past, for example, when countries develop, at first, they over-rely on producing raw materials, but as they develop more, they focus more on making products with raw materials or on providing services.
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