UBER HAS BEEN testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. The goal is simple: You open the Uber app on your phone, summon a car and it takes you where you want to go. Everything is automated.
This got me thinking about the high price of owning a car and the possibility of a future where ownership is more the exception than the rule.
In Pittsburgh, the test trips are free, rather than the standard $1.05 per mile. An article in Bloomberg quotes Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick:
In the long run, Kalanick says, prices will fall so low that the per-mile cost of travel, even for long trips in rural areas, will be cheaper in a driverless Uber than in a private car.
There's still a long way to go before this happens. For one thing, the testing in Pittsburgh is being done with a pilot and co-pilot in the front seat. The pilot ensures that the car (a Volvo XC90 SUV) is driven safely, and the co-pilot takes notes on everything that happens.
If all goes well, though, passengers will soon be in the cars by themselves.
While getting costs down is important, the biggest concern is safety. The cars work from extremely detailed maps and react to any change out of the ordinary.
Over the past year and a half, the company has been creating extremely detailed maps that include not just roads and lane markings, but also buildings, potholes, parked cars, fire hydrants, traffic lights, trees, and anything else on Pittsburgh's streets. As the car moves, it collects data, and then using a large, liquid-cooled computer in the trunk, it compares what it sees with the preexisting maps to identify (and avoid) pedestrians, cyclists, stray dogs, and anything else.
But driving isn't just about avoiding obstacles. There are also moral and ethical quandaries to deal with.
You might be familiar with the trolley dilemma, where you're given a choice of allowing a trolley to continue along a track and kill five people or pull a switch so that it goes to another track and only kills one person.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has created a series of puzzles called the Moral Machine. You can take the test, and they'll gather the data to help program self-driving cars.
In cases where the choice is between killing humans or killing animals, the answer is easier. But before long you're asked to pick between people with different backgrounds — for example, a doctor and a homeless person.
So far, self-driving cars actually appear to be safer than human-driven cars. Google has done extensive testing, and only recently has one of its vehicles been the cause of an accident when a Lexus bumped into a bus.
Now, you might be thinking: "I'm not going to trust my safety to some high-tech company like Google or Uber that doesn't know anything about cars."
If that's the case, you might want to wait for Ford to roll out its autonomous taxi fleet. The company announced this week that it will have the cars — no steering wheel, brakes or gas pedal — operating in at least one city by 2021.
As self-driving cars reach the point where they are safer and cheaper than what we have now, it's only a matter of time before they become the norm.
Mark Rogers writes about media and technology at his newsonaut blog.