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Autonomous Vehicles – The Human Factor

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Opinion by Cor Steenstra

The latest buzz in the auto industry is ‘Autonomous” driving, and all the major players are investigating and setting up multi million Dollar research facilities in Silicon Valley of course, since that is where all the whiz kids reside that could make this reality. There are a lot of positives connected to this incentive of course, but I have the impression that the human factor, the realistic human factor, is gleefully ignored in favor of the spending craze.

Here in the US we do have many Freeways and Interstates, and there is often huge distances between destinations, inviting the driver to have the car drive itself for longer periods of time. As a passionate car enthusiast, I have to admit that on long drives even I long for this feature. Take for instance the drive from LA to Las Vegas, or from AL North to San Francisco. Those drives feature hours of boredom and nothingness. There are slight curves in the roads, some undulations, a few exits, a few gas stations, but that is it. I could use my time so much better, if not by doing something actively by at least taking a long nap so I will be rested when I arrive.

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We have all seen those inviting images from many companies showing luxury interiors with plenty of space and people doing anything but driving the vehicle. They talk, have conferences, are on the Internet, play games, interact.. Oh what paradise…

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The reality will sadly be very different, and I have not seen anyone depict this in any of the promotional pieces on the subject. Of course not. It is not in their main interest.

I am a glass half full person, generally have a very positive outlook on life and try to see the good in everything, wherever I can, and this is no different, but…. I am also a realist and am able to add 1 plus 1, and am able to deduct what I have seen and experienced in life ¬†and translate that into a realistic expectations of any development.

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There are, in my view, two options for the autonomous vehicle as presented currently, either to be owned and operated by private individuals and companies, or as a form of public transport owned and operated by transportation facilities or cities even. There are issues with both of them, and that issue is the Human Factor.

Not everybody is rich, and the concepts shown thus far are all in the upper if not top price category. Logically, the technology is new and expensive, but that does mean that the majority of people will not be able to afford an autonomous vehicle. Even if they do, and also the ones who can afford them, those vehicles need to be kept up to date at all times, in software and hardware, but also in the simple upkeep of the vehicle. The tires have to be good, at the correct pressure, and not on the verge of exploding. The engines, drive train, gear box, all have to be kept up to par. That is not going to be cheap, and Joe’s garage around the corner surely cannot execute that anytime soon.

That same issue goes for the corporate owned autonomous vehicles. Sure, the Lexus’ that Google operate are luxurious and nice, but in reality it is more likely that autonomous vehicles will be run by public transport companies, taxi companies etc. Has anyone used public transportation in California lately? Of course not, unless you’re very poor, live in a neighborhood people don’t want to live, or have disabilities that prevent you from driving a car.

Public transportation vehicles, buses, trains, taxis, even airplanes, are not in a state you want to spend more time in than absolutely necessary, and their maintenance is kept at a level that they can just scrape by, of course, to save money where possible. So that already leaves the state of the vehicles questionable, but then, have you seen what people do in public transport, especially when they deem themselves unobserved? Have you stayed in a hotel recently and not wondered what went on, if it is really clean?

When people own vehicles they usually are very proud of them, when they buy them new and can afford to maintain them properly. When you see the majority however, the used cars, the run down ones, the rust buckets, it is very questionable if this truly is the best suggestion we can make at this stage. We should of course develop this technology, but the implementation of it cannot be done without a major change in our infrastructure. THAT should be the focus. THAT should be the first priority.



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