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Ford invests in self-driving cars, ethics debated

Automotive magnate Ford Motor Company took a billion-dollar risk on a self-driving car startup.

Ford hopes this new company, which specializes in artificial intelligence, machine learning and computer vision, will produce the hardware and software necessary to outfit Ford vehicles with self-driving technology by 2021.

This is one more step toward a future filled with planes, trains and automobiles that fly, ride and drive themselves. Ford is late to the self-driving party. The proof-of-concept of automated automobiles appeared first in the late 1920s, and by the 1980s truly autonomous cars were possible. Many big-name auto manufacturing companies have researched and made their own variations —  Mercedes‑Benz, General Motors, Nissan, Toyota, Audi, Volvo and Tesla Motors, to name a few.

Unlike those earlier innovations, modern self-driving systems use computerized sensors including lidar, stereo vision, GPS and machine vision in neural networks.

Zach Crabtree, senior engineering major, is enthusiastic about the future of the self-driving car, predicting many new conveniences previously unavailable.

“I see more efficient and enjoyable travel, especially on long trips. Driving across Kansas is pretty boring; it’s such a mundane task just to hold your hand on the wheel, yet you have to do that to stay alive,” Crabtree said.

Crabtree also predicted that in 10 to 15 years self-driving cars will be available for purchase “at only 20 percent to 30 percent more than the average car.”

Crabtree noted many benefits over human-operated vehicles in terms of safety. He recalled watching a dash cam video inside a self-driving car.

“The two cars in front of it had an accident, and the car itself with the footage started stopping. At first, it hits your eye weird because you wonder why it’s happening. A few seconds later, you see the crash happen, and it’s really strange,” Crabtree said. “It shot radar underneath the car in front of it and was able to see the car two cars in front of it to know that it was going to come to a stop.”

Consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimated that widespread use of autonomous vehicles could “eliminate 90 percent of all auto accidents in the United States, prevent up to $190 billion in damages and health-costs annually and save thousands of lives.”

However, many people are not convinced the self-driving car is the answer to traffic problems. Jacob Russell, senior engineering major, foresees problems with the legalization of self-driving cars.

“There’s going to be a car(that gets) in a wreck, and there’s going to be some legal issue, and it’s going to be put on the news, and there’s going to be pushback and people are going to say, ‘science has gone too far,’” Russell said.

Furthermore, Russell vocalized economic concerns if self-driving cars were used in commercial applications like goods transportation and taxi services.

“It’s putting every truck driver out of business, every cab driver. The goal to make humanity better by engineering is our goal – to make a better world. But a better world doesn’t necessarily mean replacing people,” Russell said.

Russell pointed out an ethical dilemma. “There’s this idea of an inanimate object that makes a decision, and that decision risks the lives of everybody on the road. So there’s a healthy fear there,” Russell said. But He observed that without opposition, there would be no standards for safety.

Crabtree predicted for his children, “They might look back and say, ‘I can’t believe you had to drive a car.’”