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Year 8 Debate: Autonomous Cars are the Future

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Earlier in 2020, a team of Year 8's competed in the inaugural Rotary Youth Debates Competition. Competing in the Intermediate section of the competition, they chose to research and debate whether ‘Autonomous Cars are the Future’.

When Robert Whitehead invented the self-propelled torpedo in the 1860s, the early guidance system for maintaining depth was so new and essential he called it “The Secret.” Airplanes got autopilots just a decade after the Wright brothers. These days, your Cheerios and Weetabix were probably gathered by a driverless harvester. Semi-autonomous military drones kill from the air, and robot vacuum cleaners such as the iRobot constantly confuse and petrify our pets.

Yet one modest dream has rarely ventured beyond the pages of science fiction since our grandparent’s youth: the self-driving family car.

It is my belief that autonomous vehicles are the future. The term autonomous vehicle also known as a driverless vehicle, is a vehicle that can move and guide itself without human input. Autonomous vehicles are able to perceive what is going on in their surroundings and travel to different locations through a combination of sensors, cameras, radar and Artificial Intelligence. The question in my mind shouldn’t be whether they are the future, but how long it will take these super machines to completely abolish human driving.

My argument rests on the notion that autonomous vehicles remove human error and are therefore safer. Firstly, the greatest benefit of self-driving cars are that they will reduce traffic accidents significantly. It may surprise you to know that 1.24 million people die every year globally due to traffic accidents. That According to the World Health Organization, between 20 and 50 million more sustain non-fatal injuries. That the car is the second most destructive invention after gunpowder. That Getting behind the wheel is the most dangerous thing most people do on a typical day. As recently as September of this year, a study carried out by TRL concluded that 22% of collisions, in which 1 car was replaced by a level 4 automated vehicle could be avoided; and that based on predictions that by 2040 8-19% of total car fleets will be autonomous, at least 650 fatal and serious injury collisions could be avoided in the UK alone.

Amelie may well question this and focus on the highly publicised deaths reported in 2016 and 2018 where two pedestrians lost their lives. Any loss of life is a tragedy. However, reports commissioned by companies such as Google have reported that automated vehicles have been involved in 3.2 crashes per million miles driven – compared with 4.2 crashes per million miles for conventional cars.. BUT none of the automated vehicles were responsible for the collisions. Software has never been the cause.

When a human is in the driving seat; they are only one lapse of judgement away from destroying a family; destroying a person; destroying a life. Indeed, opposers of autonomous vehicles, such as Amelie, may well use an updated “Trolley” problem in defence of her position: A self-driving car has lost control of its brakes and is heading down the road toward some pedestrians. Which one should it hit — an elderly person or a child? For the last four years, the MIT Media Lab has been inviting visitors to answer a series of questions like these. It’s part of a project to learn more about moral decision-making. The project has been immensely popular, with more than 2 million participants from more than 200 countries. The study has concluded while the data collected is descriptive of how we make moral choices, it doesn’t answer the question of how we shouldAnd it’s not clear that it’s of any more relevance to self-driving cars than to every other policy we consider every day — all of which involve trade-offs that can cost lives.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles have access to billions of miles of data. Autonomous vehicles will save lives. For example: most accidents at junctions happen in the first second after the lights turn green. Autonomous vehicles are programmed to wait one second, use 3D technology to map their surroundings and plan the safest and quickest routes.

Additionally, they are fitted with technology and software including ABE, lane assist, adaptive cruise control and blind spot sensors that may already have saved your lives without you knowing it.

To conclude: humans are the weakest link in cars and removing that link will save lives. The fact that this has been recognised by the UK government, which in February 2019 announced it is developing a process to support advanced the trials of automated vehicles and is committed to have fully automated cars on the roads by 2021 is testament to this. Cars will eventually take to the road without the single biggest cause of accidents – the drivers themselves.

Click here to read Amelie's response against autonomous cars.