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Are Driverless Cars a Good Idea?

Eric Risberg/AP Images

Driverless cars were once just the stuff of science fiction. But in recent years, they’ve become a ­reality—and they’re now hitting the streets in a number of U.S. cities. Companies like Uber, Google, and Ford recently started testing ­hundreds of self-driving vehicles on public roads in Arizona, ­California, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and other states.

Supporters of driverless cars say the vehicles will make roads safer by cutting down on the number of crashes caused by distracted ­driving or other human errors. In addition to saving lives, fewer ­accidents would reduce traffic—and pollution—since cars wouldn’t be stuck on congested roadways as a result. 

But critics say the advantages of driverless cars have been overblown. They claim that it’s too soon to tell whether automated vehicles will reduce accidents. In fact, 

Uber briefly suspended its test ­program earlier this year after one of its self-driving SUVs crashed into a conventional car in Tempe, Arizona. (No one was seriously injured.) Opponents also question whether driverless cars will be able to operate in bad weather, since heavy rain or snow could interfere with the vehicles’ sensors. 

Are driverless cars a good idea? Two experts weigh in.

YES

Each year, 1.3 million people worldwide die in car accidents. Ninety-four percent of those crashes are due to human error. This is a tragedy self-driving vehicles can help solve. That’s because computers can think better and react earlier than people.  

As soon as we can show that a self-driving car can drive more safely than a human, we should expect to see many more such vehicles picking up passengers across the country—and eventually around the world. 

Self-driving cars will also help accelerate the shift toward increased ride sharing and reduced car ownership. Many people already use ride-sharing services like Uber instead of owning their own cars. Self-driving vehicles are a great fit for ride sharing because machines have the potential to find the best routes for getting people to their destinations more safely and faster than human drivers.

Self-driving cars will lead to fewer accidents and save lives.

A future where more of us use ride sharing as our primary mode of transportation means we’ll need fewer cars overall, which comes with key benefits, including reduced road congestion and less time wasted in traffic. Fewer cars also means less pollution and fewer parking spaces. That would make room for more parks, bike lanes, and businesses. 

Real-world testing is critical to getting this technology ready for nationwide use. That’s why Uber is testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Tempe, Arizona. Both cities have welcomed this technology with open arms. 

A better future is within reach. We already have the technology. While it won’t happen overnight, self-driving cars will be an important part of the future of transportation.  

—Emily Duff Bartel
Senior Product Manager, Advanced Technologies Group, Uber

NO

We are assured that driverless cars will one day save lives, reduce accidents, ease conges­tion, and curb energy consumption. These promises contain elements of truth. But the data to support them is nowhere near complete. Even if the evidence does eventually materialize, areas of concern remain.  

Take, for example, the idea that self-driving cars will lead to tens of thousands fewer highway deaths each year. The truth is, no one knows for sure how many lives could be saved by driverless cars. That’s because data on the role of human error in crashes relies heavily on self-reporting and is therefore incomplete. If many driverless cars are operating in close proximity at high speed, some accidents are likely to involve more vehicles and be even more deadly than the accidents we know today. 

The benefits of driverless cars are outweighed by the drawbacks.

Then there’s infrastructure to consider. Many driverless cars require smooth roads, with clearly painted lines, to safely position themselves. Potholes and other irregularities could become even greater hazards. Our infrastructure is already underfunded. Where will the resources come from to maintain and repair roads and bridges to this new, higher standard?

One of the claims made about driverless cars is that they don’t need as much safety gear because there will supposedly be fewer crashes, making the vehicles lighter and more fuel-efficient. That’s great—until an old-school pickup truck rams into your Google car. 

The risk of distracted driving is one of the strongest arguments for driverless cars. But distracted driving could be reduced by disabling phones in moving cars.

Driverless cars might eventually have many benefits. But at the moment, those potential benefits are outweighed by the problems.  

—Jamie Lincoln Kitman
New York Bureau Chief, Automobile Magazine

CORE QUESTION: What evidence does each writer use to support his or her claims? How does each writer address the other side’s arguments? Who do you think makes the stronger case?

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