Who’s afraid of driverless cars?

With companies as different as General Motors and Google investing in the technologies, self-operated cars are speeding towards road-going reality.

The most recent reminder of this came from Nissan, which promised to put an autonomous vehicle in consumers’ hands by 2020. Luxury sedans from Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln, Volvo and Infiniti already contain some form of corrective-steering technology, with more brands joining virtually every few weeks.

Questions around how these vehicles will work and interact with traditional cars, and how broad the adoption will be, remain wide open.

We trawled Quora.com, the online question and answer community, to gauge people’s biggest fears around driverless cars, and how these remarkable machines might, or might not, change our roads for good.

At a defensive disadvantage?

Quora user Michael Wolfe is wary of the implications of having both traditional and autonomous cars sharing the same roadway. “Think about what happens if you cut off a traditional car. It may crash into you and wreck. The driver will scream at you and may chase you down,” he wrote. “What happens if you cut off a self-driving car? It will instantly adjust to a safe distance behind you and ‘let you in.’"

Wolfe suspects that owners of self-driving cars would be at a disadvantage as more and more drivers learned they could cut ahead without consequences. The end result? Owners of self-driving cars might kick into manual mode and drive defensively, defeating one of the core tenets of autonomous-car advocacy: that these vehicles are safer. “No one wants to be a sucker,” Wolfe summarised.

Lose human instinct, gain accidents

Self-driving cars will be adept at avoiding certain types of accidents, argued Kevin Mercuri, such as being able to stop abruptly when the leading car stops short. But taking smart evasive action, he contends, would be nigh on impossible for a self-driving car.

“Here in NY, I’ve seen pedestrians on their phones absentmindedly step out in the street between parked cars before they left the sidewalk,” he wrote. “An onboard computer doesn’t detect stupidity; it will only detect the pedestrian four steps later when they enter the traffic flow.” Mercuri has avoided contact with absentminded pedestrians and others by scanning the road ahead and anticipating trouble spots before they manifested.

Public transportation will suffer

The convenience of driverless cars will come at the expense of public transportation and rail line expansion, worries Quora user Jonathan Lyons. “We have an opportunity to rethink personal transportation,” he said. “I don't believe that isolating ourselves in private self directed boxes on wheels will encourage that discussion.” He wrote that whatever investment being made in autonomous vehicle technology would be better used on projects that would not “encourage wasteful fuel and road usage.”

Regulations will keep self-driving cars off the road

Jason Lancaster, editor of the consumer-information portal Accurateautoadvice.com, had the opposite fear: that driverless cars will never make it out of testing and into circulation. “The US legal system and US media will prevent autonomous cars from being anything more than a pipe dream,” he wrote.

In his post, he recalled the problems Toyota encountered after the media reported an electonic throttle problem that allegedly caused runaway vehicles. “What's worse is that even though claims of an electronic throttle problem were found to be bogus, Toyota still ended up paying a massive $1.3bn class-action settlement.” He worried that the same level of scrutiny would come with any incident, or even a perceived incident, involving an autonomous car.

“Unless there are some legal protections for automakers, they're going to handicap the autonomous systems just enough so that the driver must be paying attention 100% of the time,” he wrote.

Losing out on the love of driving

While Soham Ghosh appreciated the engineering involved in creating a car that moves on its own, he wondered if something fundamental about cars themselves would be lost in translation.

“Imagine driving through the countryside. Now imagine sitting in a driver-less car in the same situation. You just don't have the same feeling of fulfillment,” he wrote.

A motoring enthusiast, Ghosh closed by hinting at what could mushroom into a heated debate between autonomy advocates and those who drive for the joy of it. “What’s the point of a car if you’re not going to drive it?”