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Ryan E. Day


Are Self-Driving Cars an Answer Without a Question?

One more from the ‘just because we can’ files

Published: Thursday, June 21, 2018 - 11:03

Henry Ford is credited with the cheeky quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said, ‘A faster horse.’” But, people didn’t get a faster horse (which may indeed have been what they wanted). What we did get was a machine that literally—and irrevocably—changed the entire world. And it’s happening again with autonomous vehicles (AV).

We know that when “horseless carriages” hit the roads, not everyone greeted them with equanimity. I wonder, did people actually want something to replace their horses? Would we have been somehow underserved if we had just developed more efficient ways of juxtaposing urban development and the disposal of horse manure? Maybe we did just want faster horses.

We are once again being gifted with inescapable technology in the form of self-driving vehicles.

In December 2016, GM’s CEO Mary Barra posted an open letter on LinkedIn wherein she stated, “We’re also committed to the belief that AVs (autonomous vehicles) will provide huge benefits to our customers when it comes to safety, convenience, and quality of life.... At GM, we’re advancing technologies that make our customers’ lives safer, simpler, and better.”

In a TechCrunch interview, Renault-Nissan’s CEO Carlos Ghosn revealed this about self-driving vehicles:
“Obviously, as you know on self-driving cars, we have to be very careful because you have different levels of autonomy. Today, we have already launched in Japan the one-lane highway autonomy—we call it the ProPilot. It’s already on, it’s having a lot of success because most of the people ordering the Serena are ordering with this feature, even though it’s a paid upgrade. So, we know that autonomy is something of high interest for the consumers.”

Major auto OEMs from Ford to Volkswagen are 100-percent committed to developing and selling autonomous vehicles as rapidly as possible.

Coming at the subject of AVs from a strictly product development point of view, I suppose I understand the possible benefits of AV technology touted by its proponents:
• Significant reduction of accidents
• More efficient use of fuel
• Increased capacity of existing infrastructure
• We can play board games while driving to Reno
(I made up that last one)

But, just as with the advent of self-propelled vehicles, the emergence of self-driving vehicles is being closely scrutinized by the general public.

A Newsweek article gleaning data from a Pew Research Center study highlighted the complexity of American attitudes toward AVs, including findings that 87 percent of Americans want self-driving cars to always have humans inside who can take control in emergencies, and only 44 percent said they would ride in a driverless vehicle.

So now I wonder, do people actually want to replace their non-autonomous cars? Or are we going to get AVs whether we like it or not? Because clearly, not everyone is as enthusiastic as the OEMs.

A survey conducted by CarInsurance.com revealed that 80 percent of survey respondents said they “would not buy an autonomous car if one were available today.”

J.D. Powers’ “U.S. Automotive Emerging Technologies Study” in both 2012 and 2013, found that only one out of every five consumers was interested in a fully autonomous vehicle.

I suppose it’s possible that current surveys might reflect a tone of increased acceptance by John Doe, but in light of recent AV crashes and an AV car vs. pedestrian fatality, I wouldn’t bet on it.

What niggles at me is the fact that we-the-consumers may not have enough influence to stem the tide of development. We are literally being forced into living with a technology whether we choose to buy an AV or not.

Nobody wanted Windows 10, but we got it in all its wretched glory anyway.

Nobody asked Apple to render our corded earbuds useless, but they did it anyway.

But, not every product or technological decision is so frivolous.

When automobiles became relatively affordable and available, our entire society was transformed on many levels. Some good, some not so much. Consequences, like the influence ultra-mobility would have on the dynamic of society and family, were probably only mulled over silently by young men wanting to escape the family farm and wives stuck in abusive relationships. Other possibilities, such as risk of mortality, were definitely on the radar but summarily dismissed.

Now, with tens of thousands killed in auto accidents every year in the United States alone, and tons of pollution from auto exhaust created every day, human history bears out that when tech is conceived, developed, and deployed strictly within the context of profit, we suffer grave unforeseen consequences. And the genie can rarely be put back in the bottle.

Even when we ask for advancements in certain areas of technology, industry (and we consumers) too often turn a blind eye to the apparent lack of due diligence when it comes to conceptualizing the possible consequences for future generations.

AV technology is, if nothing else, a cash cow that “mobility” companies are apparently not going to be denied. The question is, “In what ways will driverless technology change our world, and that of posterity?” Because a drastic societal reorg due to AVs is just as inevitable as the changes wrought by the automobile. Some changes will be acute and immediately apparent. Others will not be evident for generations. But they are inevitable.

Then again, it’s always a possibility that high tech may mitigate some of the problems caused by low tech. There are, no doubt, upsides to letting Watson drive. Only time will tell. And it will because the auto-bots are definitely rolling out, and it would take a small miracle and a big catastrophe to stop them.


About The Author

Ryan E. Day’s picture

Ryan E. Day

Ryan E. Day is Quality Digest’s project manager and senior editor for solution-based reporting, which brings together those seeking business improvement solutions and solution providers. Day has spent the last decade researching and interviewing top business leaders and continuous improvement experts at companies like Sakor, Ford, Merchandize Liquidators, Olympus, 3D Systems, Hexagon, Intertek, InfinityQS, Johnson Controls, FARO, and Eckel Industries. Most of his reporting is done with the help of his 20 lb tabby cat at his side.