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Being Taken for a Ride – The Self-Driving Car

You’re comfortably in the passenger seat of a sedan on your way to the movies. You look to your left; the steering wheel is moving, but no one is sitting there. That’s got to be somewhat of an unsettling feeling, but it is edging closer to reality. 

Most major car companies are working on self-driving (aka autonomous) systems where sophisticated controls, sensors and GPS systems instantly interpret environmental obstacles to navigate a vehicle on a clear path.  

Google

Google has done extensive testing on modified vehicles and has even designed a car that has no steering wheel or pedals. Google vehicles have logged more than one million test miles on public roads, and the company hopes to go to market with its autonomous cars by 2020. 

Incidents

Self-driving cars have not been without incident. Google reports at least a dozen minor collisions; however, it claims in most cases the other driver was at fault. Also, a driver using the Tesla’s Autopilot service was killed in a collision with a tractor trailer. The crash is still under investigation. 

Legislation

Vehicle codes in states were simply not written with self-driving cards in mind. However, several states have created legislation allowing the testing of self-driving cars on public roads. Several car makers and technology companies developed a recent coalition advocating for a single U.S. legal code on self-driving cars  

Privacy

As with any technology-based system, data security becomes an issue. What safeguards will there be for the information someone’s car collects? Will hackers be able to take control of a driverless car? 

Public Opinion

There have been many surveys gauging consumers’ interest and comfort level with respect to self-driving cars. A 2013 survey of 1,500 people from 10 countries by Cisco Systems found that 57% would ride in a car controlled entirely by technology that does not require a human driver. The “X” factor, however, is what will be the consumer sticker price for such a car? 

Uber and the Steel City

Ride-sharing giant Uber announced a $300 million deal with Volvo to develop self-driving cars by 2021. This summer, using dozens of custom Volvo XC90 SUVs and Ford Fusions, the organization will initially offer free self-driving rides in Pittsburgh. The cars will have a safety person sitting at the wheel should a manual intervention become necessary. Pittsburgh officials have been supportive of Uber’s efforts, and the company has also received assistance from Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics department. Along with the Uber’s agreement with Volvo, it also recently acquired Otto, a company developing self-driving trucks for commercial use.  

And more than 9,000 miles away, Singapore is now offering self-driving cabs developed by nuTonomy, a U.S.-based start-up. The cars will be specially equipped Renault and Mitsubishi electric vehicles. 

Societal Impact

Self-driving cars are clearly a disruptive technology. Experts predict everything from reshaping the employment landscape to decreased crime to increased urban sprawl. This may or may not come to pass. Hopefully, those flying cars from The Jetsons aren’t too far behind?   

Marc Fogarty, Audit Partner and a member of EisnerAmper's Public Companies, Cleantech and International Services Groups. Marc is experienced in public accounting, serving public and private organizations and has presented on IFRS to professional groups.

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