Risks Posed by Self-Driving Vehicles

Risks Posed by Self-Driving Vehicles

Autonomous vehicles have a bumpy future ahead of them!

On March 8, 2022, tech startup Pony Ai recalled some versions of its autonomous driving software. The reason behind this recall was that one of the vehicles the Pony Ai software was being tested on crashed into a lane divider and a street sign in Fremont, California, in October last year. This is not the first time something like this has occurred. In 2018, an Uber autonomous test car crashed into a woman walking with her bike, ultimately leading to the woman’s death. 

These cases show us that while self-driving cars might be the future of how we commute from one place to another, they pose some fatal risks which we all need to be aware of before investing in them. Here is a list of some of the major reasons why driverless cars might be a bad idea.

Who takes the blame?

One of the biggest risks posed by autonomous vehicles (AVs) is that there is no clear-cut answer to who is to be held responsible if the vehicle crashes. For instance, in the 2018 case we mentioned above, Uber got out completely scot-free. Instead, the driver present in the car at the time, Rafaela Vasquez, was held responsible for it because she was caught looking at her phone while the car was in motion. However, the investigating team of the case found that besides human error, the inadequate safety culture at Uber was also at fault for the accident.

According to a study published in the journal Humanities and Social Science Communications, manufacturers need to make users sign end-user license agreements to ensure that drivers know how to use the vehicles appropriately. However, almost all of us are guilty of signing such agreements without actually reading the fine print, so it is debatable whether this would actually work or not.

If safety messages or warnings are displayed while the vehicle is in motion, they could either be ignored by the driver or could pose a distraction. This prevents manufacturers from completely shedding liability for any accident that happens, which means that car manufacturers can still find themselves in lawsuits if an accident occurs.

Prone to hacking 

Much like any other piece of technology, a self-driving car would also run the risk of being hacked. These cars rely on software for their functionality, so if a hacker gets control over the software, they can basically control the car. This can be dangerous to the safety of car owners in a number of ways. 

Not only can the hacker induce an accident and injure the passengers, but it can also lead to the hacker gaining access to the vehicle owner’s personal information. Most of us connect our phones to our cars to listen to music via Bluetooth, which would make it possible for the hacker to access the information on our phones as well. The hacker could sell this information or most likely use it as leverage for a ransom.

The fear of self-driving cars getting hacked isn’t coming out of thin air. In 2019, an autonomous Tesla was hacked by white hat hackers (ethical security hackers), Amat Cama and Richard Zhu within minutes. To lower the risk of hacks, car owners can change their passwords (as opposed to continuing with the default passwords), update the car’s software (since newer software would have patches for all known vulnerabilities), use Global Positioning System (GPS) sparingly and put effort into learning about the car.   

Radiation exposure and the threat of fires

Since these cars are chock-full of technologies, like GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, remote controls and power accessories, they expose the driver to high amounts of electromagnetic field radiation. Prologued exposure to electromagnetic field radiation can lead to health conditions, like migraines, high blood pressure, difficulty in breathing and sleeplessness. 

Another safety concern with AVs is the threat of fire. This is a particularly big concern for AVs that use lithium-ion batteries, which are known to be highly combustible. Once a lithium-ion battery catches fire, it can reach temperatures of up to 3,632 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 °C). Attempting to extinguish the fire with water can lead to a hydrogen gas explosion. If a lithium-ion battery-operated AV gets into an accident, there is a risk of the release of toxic gases and projectiles, which can be dangerous for emergency responders trying to save the people in the vehicle. 

As of 2022, the global AV market is worth US$54 billion, and it is estimated to increase tenfold in the next five to seven years. With such a massive market size and over 40 companies working to develop self-driving vehicles, we can expect these issues to be addressed by the time the technology becomes mainstream. For now, the industry has a lot of roadblocks it needs to tackle. 

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Header image courtesy of Freepik

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