Cities Journal

Will Self-Driving Cars Make American Cities More Dangerous?


We are currently living in an age that will one day probably be described as the early age of machine learning and artificial intelligence. That is, if we are not replaced by a robot population that will feature humans solely in their myths of squishy, pink beings that possibly gave birth to their glorious metallic species.

One of the areas where AI is making the most obvious strides is in the automotive industry, which has been convincing everyone for years that self-driving cars are the way of the future.

Truth be told, it is not that difficult to understand their reasoning. The vast majority of traffic accidents are caused by human error. Various studies conducted over the years agree that at least 90 percent of all traffic accidents are caused by human behavior. The idea is simple – take the humans out of the equation and reduce the number of accidents.

When one reads a bit more about self-driving cars, it is almost impossible not to get super excited about the proposition. Thanks to machine learning, it is estimated that the self-driving cars that are whizzing around in test drives these days have accumulated the equivalent of 40 years of driving experience. When this is combined with certain advantages these cars have over humans (such as seeing hidden objects thanks to radars), we should all be looking forward to a future where traffic accidents are as rare as airplane crashes.


Well, not exactly. When was anything that simple?

In reality, self-driving cars can, and probably will, pose a number of dangers for people involved in traffic.

For one, there is the eternal problem of technology glitching at the worst possible time. Try to remember all the times in your life when relatively simple devices such as your smartphone or your PC froze and/or refused to do as told. Extrapolate this to a machine as complex as a self-driven car and add high speeds and what do you get? You get a bug-ridden steel and glass cage around your body, hurling toward a cliff with nothing but a blue screen in front of your face.

And please, do not try to convince us that this will not happen with self-driving cars.

This happens with all tech.

Self-driving cars will also be over-reliant on their surroundings and if the history of transportation has taught us anything, it is that driving conditions are almost never perfect. Roadworks spring up overnight, traffic lights do not work, and potholes open like sores. Much of this can pose insurmountable difficulties for the average self-driving car.

We must also not forget the fact that a city that is filled with self-driving cars will always be appealing to people who will find such systems attractivehacking targets – whether for bragging rights or for financial gain. As we all know, hackers are always at least one step ahead of people who provide security and in the case where cars are involved, this can mean the difference between a city that runs like clockwork and one where Demolition Derby-like atmosphere is simply the state of things.

Perhaps the biggest danger that self-driving cars will pose stems from, ironically, us.

The imperfect humans.

Namely, until it becomes possible to phase out traditional cars with humans behind the wheels, our cities will be a mess of self-driving and traditional cars. This combination is probably the scariest proposition – having slow and deliberate self-driving cars coexist with nervous and twitchy human drivers.

If you ask us, this is a recipe for disaster.

Of course, there is also that scariest of all types of humans – the tinkerers. You know the type. No one can convince us that someone’s uncle is not going to spend a few weeks in their garage, tinkering away at their self-driving car, turning it into some kind of a Mad Maxian machine of death which has been stripped of all fail-safes and safety features.


Because that is his God-given right as a red-blooded American.

Yeah. No thanks.

There will probably come a day when these dangers will be addressed, but until this day comes, self-driving cars will never become the norm.

The politics of it all are just too complex.


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