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A glimpse at the AI behind autonomous vehicles

Picture this: You’ve hit the snooze button one too many times on your alarm clock, and now you’re running late for your morning class. You burst out of your door and hop into your car. Zooming down the busy interstate, you’re weaving your way through traffic as you make your way to school. You arrive in record time with little trouble, and there’s even some time left to grab a quick cup of coffee before your class starts. Sounds a little too good to be true, right? 

Well, what if you weren’t the one behind the wheel? No one was driving your car or any of the other vehicles you passed on your morning commute. Although this scene sounds like something straight out of a science fiction film, advancements in artificial intelligence fuel the technology behind autonomous vehicles, and it’s making this scenario less imaginary and more real.

Semi-autonomous vehicles already inhabit our streets. The series of vehicles offered by the Tesla automotive company provide self-driving features such as auto-steering and parking, but these cars still require a driver to be present. 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 38,824 people were killed in the U.S. in motor vehicle crashes in 2020. However, fully autonomous vehicles could possibly lower that number as they become more common across the nation. (Photo illustration courtesy of Adobe)

Many modern cars also come with AI safety features, such as lane assist technology and crash detection features designed to aid drivers in accident prevention. However, there is an urge to push this technology even further and make a transition from semi-autonomous to fully autonomous vehicles.  

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 38,824 people were killed in the U.S. in motor vehicle crashes in 2020. According to NHTSA, vehicle “safety promises to be one of automation’s biggest benefits. Higher levels of automation, referred to as automated driving systems, remove the human driver from the chain of events that can lead to a crash. While these systems are not available to consumers today, the advantages of this developing technology could be far-reaching.”  

In addition to these safety features, another benefit is the improved mobility gained through autonomous vehicles. For people who struggle to get around, such as senior citizens or those with mental or physical disabilities, autonomous vehicles can make traveling more convenient than ever before, potentially improving millions of lives. 

Another impactful benefit of fully autonomous vehicles is the reduced carbon imprint they have compared to current vehicles. According to the NHTSA, the “automotive industry is moving toward more automation and electrification, which both hold promise for further improvements in safety and better environmental practices.”  

Numerous studies have outlined the negative effects that carbon emissions have had on the environment. Since many autonomous vehicles run electronically, fossil fuel emissions would decrease significantly. 

Despite these benefits, there are several downsides to fully autonomous vehicles as well, with the biggest one being job displacement. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics, an estimated 15.8 million people were employed in the transportation sector in 2022. Of those 15.8 million, 1.2 million were employed in the trucking industry. That is a significant number of workers who would be out of work if vehicles became fully autonomous.  

There is also a gray area over who legally takes responsibility if the autonomous vehicle glitches and crashes. According to the NHTSA, it is “vital to emphasize that drivers will continue to share driving responsibilities for the foreseeable future and must remain engaged and attentive to the driving task and the road ahead.” 

While the development of fully autonomous vehicles promises an era of improved safety and environmental features, there are still a lot of glaring issues that must be addressed before drivers can fully adopt this technology. 

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