The automotive industry is racing toward driverless cars with rapid innovations in autonomous technology. We will start seeing these driverless cars on the roads as early as this year. But are we ready for these autonomous vehicles? Do we understand the potential risks that come with driverless cars or are we just satisfied with the futuristic technology they provide? If we look back a hundred years, the industry encountered a similar transformation from horse-drawn carriages to (at that time) sophisticated motor vehicles. What seemed to be a great technology fix for some of the problems in those times, created new and bigger problems for the society. Today, people are more aware of technology and have genuine concerns about driverless cars. Let us take a look at the societal challenges of this automotive evolution and identify some of the risks that autonomous vehicles will bring with them.
The Age Of The Horse & Buggy
Since most 19th century cities were small, people just walked. Only the well-to-do could afford horses and use them for personal transportation. But with the rising industrial revolution, horses acquired a new status — “the living machine” — because they could master the terrible roads, transporting people and goods wherever heavy steam locomotives could not. They also pulled all sorts of mowing, harvesting and plowing machines. As industrialists built more railroads, canals, ferries and ports, they employed more horses to collect and distribute both goods and factory workers. In 1890, New Yorkers took an average of 297 horse-car rides per person a year. As horses industrialized cities and mechanized agriculture, horse populations grew six-fold to more than 24 million by 1900.
These living machines became the backbone of transportation at that time but also created a variety of societal problems. A single urban workhorse dumped between 20 to 50 pounds of manure a day, now add 500 horses per square mile to that equation, that is at least 10,000 pounds of smelly horse manure per square mile. Only some cities had good systems to truck out the manure while others dumped it in rivers. Tons of manure and dead horses clogging the streets gave rise to widespread epidemics, affecting not only people but also the horses. By the late 1910s, cities became inhospitable to the poor horse. Slippery asphalt was replacing dirt roads, neighborhoods began banning stables and farmers were opting for imported fertilizers instead of manure. Faced with massive influxes of immigrants, political unrest and factory pollution, urban reformers championed the sanitization of city streets with new technologies. Supported by public health officials, they disparaged the horse and saluted the automobile, predicting that cars would clean up the streets, avoid ‘frightful’ accidents, save money and conserve pleasure time as horses were not as manageable as mechanical vehicles. Soon horses vanished and so did the numerous jobs that relied on the horse economy. In 1890 there were 13,800 companies in the business of building carriages pulled by horses in the US but by 1920 only 90 such companies remained.
The Growth Of Automobiles
Then came the combustion engine that gave birth to automobiles. As the horse industry collapsed, the car industry came to life. In 1903, Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company and just a decade later, in 1913, introduced the first assembly line to mass produce cars quickly. By 1923, 20 million automobiles were being produced per year. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, between 1910 and 1950, the auto industry created 6.9 million net new jobs in the United States, equivalent to 11% of the country’s workforce in 1950. This includes 7.5 million jobs created and 623,000 jobs destroyed. These jobs represented new occupations that serviced cars and that utilized motorized vehicles for transportation and delivery. People soon started abandoning public transportation and bought cars. They flocked to the cities in high numbers increasing the rate of urbanization. The United Nations reported that the urban population of the world had grown rapidly since 1950, from 746 million to 3.9 billion in 2014. The rise of automobiles brought down the price of grain so dramatically that the U.S. Bureau of Census tagged the horse-to-car transition as one of the main contributing factors to the Great Depression.
Soon ‘frightful accidents’ gave way to ‘fatal accidents’, nearly 1.3 million people die in road accidents even today, with an additional 20 to 50 million being injured per year. In the US alone, almost 40,000 people die in road crashes every year and another 2.4 million are wounded. Cars may have cleaned up the horse manure from city streets but driven with fossil fuels, they started polluting the air with greenhouse gases. As millions of cars took over the world, the pollution triggered climate change and ozone depletion. The dependence on cars and oil made the automobile industry a highly centralized one, dominated mainly by big automakers and oil companies. This concentration, in turn, fed the growth of roads and road infrastructure to accommodate more cars. Urbanization rapidly increased and led to the congestion of cities and massive traffic jams. People waste money and space on parking areas where cars sit unused 95% of the time. As these new and bigger challenges started surfacing and became more persistent, technology kept advancing. Urban reformers are now supporting the introduction of electric autonomous vehicles.
The Introduction Of Autonomous Vehicles
The driverless car revolution has already begun, and we are going to see autonomous vehicles on a commercial scale starting this year. Automakers predict that these autonomous vehicles will reduce the number of fatal accidents caused mainly due to human error, reduce traffic congestion with vehicle platooning and provide more time for productivity while bringing down the costs of transportation. The shift of the auto industry toward electrification of vehicles will also push electric autonomous cars and trucks in the market, in an attempt to reduce air pollution and the dependence on fossil fuels. Morgan Stanley predicts that autonomous cars could contribute $1.3 trillion in savings to the US economy alone. Imagine if there were no more traffic jams and you could enjoy the comfort of the car without actually having to drive it. You can take a nap, read a book or even catch up on work while the car is driving itself. Sounds like a dream? It is now a reality. Yes, autonomous vehicles sound absolutely great, but we should not make the same mistake we made a hundred years ago by not addressing the risks that come with them. Just as people lost thousands of jobs in the transition to cars, up to 4 million truck, bus, delivery and taxi driving jobs could be lost if fully autonomous vehicle technology is adopted in a short period of time.
Let us look at some other societal aspects. Humans are unpredictable. Uber’s self-driving car fatally crashed into a pedestrian who was walking outside the crosswalk in Arizona. Even though a safety driver was present behind the wheel, the crash could not be avoided. In a situation like this, what code of ethics should the intelligent vehicle employ to make a decision to stop? In the future, there will be remote operators monitoring the situation. But the question is will they be quick enough to take control of the situation? Autonomous vehicles will be more software-defined than ever before incorporating hundreds of millions of lines of code. This makes the vehicle more vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Your car could be hacked remotely causing your vehicle to start, stop or crash, or steal some sensitive information that can be used to exploit the owner/passenger. These driverless cars will also generate 4 TB of data per car per day, giving rise to data privacy issues. This data will not just be about the autonomous vehicle, it will also be about you. Personal information of the passengers collected by the autonomous vehicle is a security risk. Would you be willing to share your data to increase safety? On the other hand, would you be willing to share your data to receive personalized in-vehicle advertisements? The answer to these questions might vary among different people. McKinsey reported that customers are more willing to share data if it is required for safety, to save time and to bring down costs. Almost every OEM is leaning toward electric vehicles and sure they may take air pollution off the roads, but the increased pressure on electric power plants can create a lot more polluted air. How are cities going to address this problem?
These are just a few of the societal challenges that autonomous vehicles will bring with them. Every revolution comes with its own set of consequences and we should be prepared to deal with them. When cars were seen as a solution to the drawbacks of horses, the broader societal consequences were not taken into consideration. Today, the fear is that autonomous vehicles will once again be treated as a technology solution to existing problems and will overlook the wider implications that they can create. Driverless cars offer us an opportunity to apply the lessons learned from the age of the horse and buggy and create a revolution that forges a better trade-off between personal mobility and societal impact.