By Paul Gillin
Few futuristic technologies excite the imagination like self-driving vehicles. And we’re getting tantalizing close.
So far, Google’s experimental vehicles have logged more than one million miles on public roads – without a single at-fault accident. An autonomous Delphi Automotive vehicle completed a 3400 mile cross-country trip this spring. An amazing 99 percent of the journey was driverless.
Commercial automakers are on board, too. Ford, Audi, Tesla, Jaguar, Nissan, and Daimler say they’ll have autonomous cars in production ranging from 2017 to 2025.
Government authorities in California, Florida, Michigan, and Nevada have passed laws to permit limited road use of the vehicles. Virginia recently designated 70 miles of highway for public testing.
The IEEE calls autonomous vehicles “the most promising form of intelligent transportation.” In fact, by 2040, it forecasts these vehicles will account for up to 75 percent of cars on the road.
Today’s experts agree on several points:
- The technology to enable cars to pilot themselves 99 percent of the time on dry roads exists today and will be available in production vehicles within the next five to seven years
- Getting to 100 percent autonomy will be a major challenge
- Rollout of autonomous features is likely to proceed incrementally, with driver-assist features assuming more responsibility over time
- Full autonomy won’t likely be mainstream until at least 2035
- Cost, culture, and government intervention will be major factors in the speed of adoption
Road Safety Leads to Road “Sanity”
On average, 30,000 people are killed in each year in auto accidents in the United States. More than 90 percent of these are due to driver error.
McKinsey estimates that autonomous vehicles could eliminate accidents due to driver error. An added bonus is a cost savings of $190 billion annually. This includes everything from medical expenses to towing costs.
Even if just one quarter of vehicles drove themselves, accidents would go down significantly. This is because the software in driverless vehicles takes extreme measures to avoid dangerous situations.
In fact, traffic accidents could become so rare that experts would investigate them as they dissect airplane accidents today, according to Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina and affiliate scholar at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School.
Safer roads will also have important ancillary benefits:
- Healthcare costs will decline.
- Hospitals will redeploy resources out of the emergency room.
- Insurance premiums will fall.
- Automakers will re-design cars to be smaller, lighter, and more fuel efficient.
- Fender-benders will be rare, leading to fewer traffic jams.
- Driver stress will plummet.
The roads will be a safer place “when anybody who’s tired or drunk or just got fired is no longer making decisions that affect us,” says Len Epp, a Montreal-based publishing executive who recently wrote a vision of the driverless future on TechCrunch.
It seems the only losers in a safer-road scenario are junkyard dealers and funeral homes.
“Driving” Efficiency to the Max
Self-driving vehicles will also use fuel and space more efficiently. This is because experts estimate convoys will travel at three to five times the road density of vehicles with human drivers. And once connected, cars will require clearance of mere inches rather than feet.
Imagine a world with vehicles constantly ferrying around passengers and goods instead of sitting in parking lots. University of Michigan researchers Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak estimate family vehicle ownership will be cut nearly in half.
But why own a car at all? Some scenarios see automobiles becoming a large shared resource. In the same way that many urban-dwellers get around by taxi, Uber, and car sharing services like ZipCar, people will simply order a vehicle when needed. Public transportation could be reborn – with highly customized and on-demand services.
“When Uber-like services can be provided both by contract drivers and driverless vehicles, then people may have less need to own their own cars,” suggests John Paul MacDuffie, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and director of the program on vehicle and mobility innovation at Wharton's Mack Institute for Innovation Management.
Fleets will be stored, serviced, and fueled in large, centralized depots, with enough in motion at any time to quickly serve the needs of the local population.
Parking lots will be almost unnecessary. This is huge, says Epp, because “every single paved road in the world is an oil spill.” Communities can redesign these “spills” – which contain high concentrations of fossil fuels – into parks or other public resources.
Plus, fully connected vehicles will alert government authorities and other vehicles of anomalies like road hazards and congestion, as well as emergencies that require law enforcement or medical care. They will also optimize passenger occupancy to reduce wasted miles.
Commercial enterprises, which rely on fleets of cars or trucks, are likely early adopters. Convoys of autonomous trucks could drive at night. In addition, truckloads could be broken into smaller batches, since drivers wouldn’t be required for each delivery. Even better, Smith suggests that self-driving vehicles combined with drones could speed up goods delivery.
Harsh Economics and Human Nature
While efficiencies of self-driving cars are clear, cultural and economic concerns remain high.
Approximately 3.5 million people drive truck for a living in the United States, according to the American Trucking Association. Another one million earn their living driving taxicabs or delivery vehicles.
In the future, most of these jobs could disappear. Jobs could also be lost at gas stations, neighborhood garages and car washes, and other localized services as these functions move to central depots.
Over time, these costs will likely be absorbed, and technology will create new opportunities we don’t see today.
However, governments and employers will need to deal with the challenges of retraining people whose jobs become unnecessary. Automakers may also suffer if predictions of fewer and cheaper cars becomes reality.
One Barclays’ analyst forecasts a driverless world will drive down U.S. auto sales by 40 percent over the next 25 years. That could eventually drive car makers to oppose the innovations they’re promoting today.
Public acceptance also isn’t a given. Many Americans regard their vehicles as symbols of independence. They’ll rebel at the idea of giving up control. And only half of Americans surveyed by Pew Research last year said they would ride in a driverless car, although that sentiment could change quickly.
Privacy and security is another big unknown. Millions of connected vehicles could present an attractive target for terrorists or hackers. Government surveillance of connected vehicles is also a concern at a time when public trust in the U.S. government is at an all-time low.
For these reasons and others, it’s likely that countries where public transportation is already widely used and where car ownership has fewer cultural overtones will be the first to adopt autonomous vehicles.
Meanwhile, within the United States, city and state governments will compete to become driverless-only test zones. Adoption will then spread according to economics, cultural acceptance, and government policy.
The least likely scenario, however? Governments forcing the issue.
“It’s hard for me to imagine, given the importance of personal autonomy, that government would mandate full autonomy,” says Wharton’s MacDuffie. Instead, governments should focus on how our world may change when auto travel becomes seamless.
For instance, people may locate farther away from the workplace and spend more time traveling. This could affect migration patterns and create new challenges for innovators to solve.
Only a century ago forward thinkers saw automobiles as the solution to horse manure in the streets. Now, five decades later, the automobile has forged a much larger problem.
Are self-driving vehicles the solution? Time – and imagination – will bring the answer.
Paul Gillin is a writer and senior consultant at B2B social media training firm Profitecture.