The self-driving car revolution is here and Tesla is jumping feet first with its autopilot feature. Amongst its ranks include the likes of familiar brands such as Google, Uber, BMW and even Apple—but the competition is fierce and the pitfalls are many. Already Apple has started to think twice about its self-driving initiative (code named Titan) and has been forced to make significant headcount and budget reductions. Meanwhile at Tesla, a much more somber episode has been triggered by the death of Joshua Brown who died while the car was on autopilot and was unable to distinguish between the sky and white body of an 18-wheeler. There is significant doubt, however, that the driver was fully paying attention to the task at hand and was instead viewing a Harry Potter movie; this is especially important as the current “autopilot mode” Tesla offers is not truly a full self-driving feature.
But the fact of the matter is that this raises two important questions about the intersection of technology and human capabilities: Are we ready to trust our cars to drive us? And are we ready for the change that will invariably come when human drivers are no longer needed? As a matter of trust, self-driving car technology to date has proven remarkably safe  in limited contexts especially compared to human driving. With tens of thousands of motorist deaths every year in the United States alone, there is a great opportunity for saving lives (not to mention eliminating drunk driving). Or as Elon Musk, illustrious CEO of Tesla puts it “[You’re] killing people,” by halting the progress of this technology.
The technology of course is extremely sophisticated. Many of the self-driving software and hardware today rely on being able to build a 3D map of the car’s environment and then making decisions about how to navigate that environment. This often involves a combination of high powered sensors including GPS, LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), and RADAR, coupled with complex algorithms and programming software that computes and makes driving decisions. These all come with caveats and have only been tested on a limited number of road types and conditions to date. For example, whereas a human can operate a vehicle while snowing or stop when signaled by a police officer, self-driving cars cannot (yet).
Despite these challenges, there is an enormous potential for autonomous vehicles to change life as we know it. Long commutes will be a thing of the past since theoretically you could eat breakfast and have a nap while your car drives you. Need to get away? Go to bed in your car and wake up 8 hours later. Think about all the transportation inefficiencies, parking nightmares, and cluttered roadways—will these be a thing of the past? But all this disruption might spell disaster for the millions of workers who currently make their livelihood driving things around. If driverless transport is the new norm, you can guarantee that truck drivers, taxis, movers, and the entire shipping industry will be impacted. Imagine a pool of intelligent cars—which may or not may not look like what they do today, since they have no need for a “front” or a steering wheel—whizzing around able to be summoned for whatever reason. Perhaps this is the new future, a future where we will wonder how we even let humans operate large heavy machines at high speeds with barely any distance in between! Of course the clear winners in this game will be those companies able to provide the best operating software for the cars . With so much disruption there is a lot of money to be made after all.
As far as Tesla is concerned, Elon Musk has already made the bold claim of being able to get a car that can drive itself across the country by the end of 2017, making Tesla the first mover in this frenzy. Meanwhile regulators including the Department of Transportation have already jumped on board issuing their own policies and guidelines. The stage is set as cars Tesla is making right now are coming equipped with additional hardware to allow for significant self-driving features. While predictions place mass autonomous vehicles well in to the future, Tesla is making the driverless world a reality today. And frankly, if we don’t get on board, these cars might leave us behind.
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1. Wakabayashi, Daisuke, and Brian Chen. “Apple Is Said to Be Rethinking Strategy on Self-Driving Cars.” New York Times 9 Sept. 2016: B1. Print.
2. Levin, Sam, and Nicky Woolf. “Tesla Driver Killed While Using Autopilot Was Watching Harry Potter, Witness Says.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 01 July 2016. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
3. Montenegro, Robert. “Google’s Self-Driving Cars Are Ridiculously Safe.” Big Think. N.p., 07 June 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
4. McGoogan, Cara. “‘You’re Killing People’: Elon Musk Attacks Critics of Self-driving Cars.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 20 Oct. 2016. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
5. “Who’s Self-Driving Your Car? Autonomous Vehicles.” Economist (US) 24 Sept. 2016: n. pag. Web.
6. Stewart, Jack. “Tesla’s Self-Driving Car Plan Seems Insane, But It Just Might Work.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 24 Oct. 2016. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
7. NPR Staff. “Regulating Self-Driving Cars For Safety Even Before They’re Built.” NPR. NPR, 20 Sept. 2016. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
8. Inside Edition. “See Motorists Play, Read, and Relax in Self-Driving Cars as Second Tesla Crashes.” www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnZHRupjl5E, YouTube, 6 July. 2016. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.