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By Trisha Prabhu

Why is everyone talking about driverless cars right now? What’s the deal?”

Hi there, and welcome back to another week of Ask Trish! I hope you’re all well and enjoying a wonderful end to October. To my North American friends, HAPPY HALLOWEEN! Wishing you a ~spooky~ and candy-filled evening!

Perfect for this spooky day is for us to dig into what once seemed to be a slightly spooky, dystopian technology: driverless cars. A huge thank you to this week’s question-er for the fantastic question! We haven’t covered driverless cars on Ask Trish, but as we’ll discuss they’re a very real, growing, interesting technology – so learning more about them is definitely warranted. And as this week’s question-er noted, driverless cars have also been all over the news lately. You’re almost certainly not the only one wondering what the heck is going on. 

Thankfully, you’ve got me to help break it down! This week, I’ll offer y’all a brief overview of 1) what driverless cars are and how they work, 2) why they’ve captured so much attention recently, and 3) the things we might consider as we think about the future of driverless cars. As always, this is just an intro to a very #complicated topic…so please use this post as a jumping off point to learn more.

Sound like a plan? Let’s get into it:

Let’s start with the basics. What are driverless cars? Driverless cars, otherwise known as robotic cars or self-driving cars, are vehicles that are able to operate/travel without any human guidance. Put simply, they’re cars that can take you from Point A to Point B without you pushing a button or touching the steering wheel! (Super cool, right?) You’re probably wondering…how do they do that? Well, these cars are capable of sensing their environment, something that they’re able to do thanks to some pretty powerful technology, including sensors, cameras, complex algorithms, and processors. Sensors and cameras help the car capture what’s going on in the real world, whether it’s a pedestrian walking by or a traffic light turning from red to green, while the fancy-shmancy algorithms help the car make sense of what all of the data/input means. The technology is sophisticated enough that it can do this instantaneously, as the car is driving. (Having been in a prototype driverless car, I can tell you that it’s quite a sight to behold! In my case, I was actually able to see what the car was “seeing.” The number of data points it picks up on and the speed with which it interprets them is remarkable.)

Sounds pretty awesome, right? Why all the buzz, then? Well, very recently, a popular driverless car company, Cruise, had its “robotaxis” pulled from San Francisco’s streets. The company’s robotaxis are just that – autonomous, self-driving taxis that San Francisco residents could order (much like an Uber) to take them to a desired destination. Initially, California regulators were impressed by and confident in the technology, allowing Cruise to operate in the city. But then…something truly awful happened. A pedestrian in SF was hit by a human-driven car and flung into the path of a Cruise car. Unfortunately, the car ultimately dragged the woman nearly 20 feet before it finally stopped. (Thankfully, though, it did stop and wait there until authorities arrived. By comparison, the human-driven car fled.) Of course, this tragic situation caused serious concern about the cars and their driverless technology – and soon after the incident, California regulators pulled Cruise’s permits. (Cruise has now suspended all of its cars, nation-wide, in an effort to revisit, hopefully improve, and later relaunch the technology.)

This sad and deeply disturbing incident raises a lot of difficult questions about driverless cars, questions that we’ll all – as a society – need to reflect on as we think about the future of driverless cars. For instance, who is responsible for accidents caused or exacerbated by driverless cars? The car company? The car’s creators? The owner of the driverless car? There are, of course, no easy answers to that question. We might also ask: what’s the right regulatory regime for driverless cars? Should they be overseen by the government (as in California) and to what extent? How can policy realize driverless cars’ benefits without its harms? Some are also asking: should we even have driverless cars? Perhaps they’re best used in certain situations? Or perhaps we’d like to use them in our everyday lives. Your perspective might depend on a lot of things, including the sophistication of the technology in question. There’s a lot to figure out – all the more reason that you all learning about this topic is so important.

I hope you enjoyed that brief primer on driverless cars. I have no doubt that this technology will continue to grab headlines, so keep your eyes peeled! I’ll do the same, and if and when I see anything interesting, I’ll have an Ask Trish #updatepost ready for y’all! Speaking of Ask Trish posts…if you’d like to offer me a treat this Halloween, please go ahead and share any Internet-related questions or thoughts on your mind here. Your musings just might be featured in an upcoming TikTok/blog post! As I often tell y’all, it is truly so easy and quick to fill out the form – and I genuinely love hearing from and being able to help you. So whatever you’re thinking about, don’t hesitate to fill out the form. Oh, and one last thing – when you have a moment, please give my Ask Trish videos some love on social media (remember, we’re on TikTok and Insta)! Like the videos, pull out your #emojigame in the comments section, and share the videos with your friends! Thank you a ton in advance for spreading the #AskTrish word.

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