The Future Is Here: Autonomous Cars Have Arrived

self-driving car illustrationLast October, the electric car company Tesla Motors made a bold prediction: By the end of 2017, one of its vehicles will have made the epic journey from Los Angeles to  New York in fully autonomous mode. That means the car will drive itself a total of 2,800 miles—no driver needed.

Self-driving cars—with 360-degree sensors working in concert with artificial intelligence software—promise to reshape society in ways we can only begin to imagine. These high-tech wonders promise a world with fewer accidents, faster commutes and more spare time for you to, say, catch up on your favorite TV series as your vehicle chauffeurs you around town.
Even cars themselves—whose basic four-wheel format hasn’t changed much since their invention more than a century ago—may begin to look quite different. “If you need to sleep during your commute, you might have a bed inside your car,” says Hod Lipson, co-author with Melba Kurman of Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead. “If a business wants to deliver pizza to a customer, they might use a small, podlike vehicle.”

autonomous pizza deliveryIt sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, but some financial researchers have predicted that in our lifetime, we could be living in a world in which most cars on the road will be driverless.

Is Our Driverless Future Accident-Free?

Proponents say one of the most anticipated benefits of self-driving cars is that they’ll increase the safety of America’s roadways.

That’s good news for all of us, as 94 percent of all crashes can be attributed to human error, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). There were an estimated 19,100 motor vehicle fatalities in the U.S. in the first half of 2016 alone, the National Safety Council reports. With human beings handing over control of their vehicles to “smart cars”—ones that are capable of communicating with one another to avoid collisions—“there is enormous potential to improve safety,” says Scott Shogan, an engineer with Parsons Brinckerhoff who specializes in automated vehicle initiatives in the United States. “A big, big piece of this is moving toward zero car deaths.”

Another perk of driverless vehicles? Convenience and mobility for vulnerable populations. With automated pick-ups and drop-offs, young children, the elderly and  the disabled may have greater access to the  services they need.

Everyday commuters will benefit as well, says Paul Godsmark, chief technology officer of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence, an Ontario-based nonprofit that raises awareness about, and consults on, the socio-economic impact of driverless cars. As more people adopt autonomous ridesharing services—Godsmark paints a picture of people sitting in private compartments within a vehicle—the less congested our roads will be.

Plus, thanks to the reduction in human error, automobiles will be able to travel much faster than they do now. Given their sophisticated sensors and technology, driverless vehicles will handle traffic and weather conditions more adeptly.

If those sound like predictable improvements, know that there is a truly space-age aspect to these vehicles: They are built to learn from each other, Godsmark explains. “Autonomous vehicles feature a hive-mind capability,” he adds. “If one vehicle encounters a collision with a bus, say, an algorithm is developed to improve how the vehicle responds to that situation in the future. “That algorithm is shared with every vehicle in the fleet, so they just get better and better.”

And how much will it cost to own a vehicle that will take you basically anywhere you want to go? Not as much as you’d expect. Some experts estimate that it will add only about $10,000 to the purchase price of a car to make it driverless.

Autos, Take The Wheel

But will Americans, with their longtime love affair with the automobile, be willing to cede control of their cars to a piece of software? The experts think so. For many people, driving has become a chore: tied to ever-longer commutes or ferrying kids to activities. Taking the driving out of your drive will make it fun again, Driverless co-author Kurman says.

Of course, to get to the point of mass acceptance, driverless vehicles will need to earn the public’s trust. “One of the things that we propose is a simple rating system that tells you how safe each car is compared to the average human driver,” says Lipson. Such a system, established by the government, would inspire consumer confidence, he says.

It’s also easier to trust a self-driving car once you’ve been a passenger in one, Kurman and Lipson say. While researching their book, they went for a 10-minute spin in a driverless car—in traffic. (Obeying current California law, there was a human in the driver’s seat—just in case.)

“We climbed into the back seat for the demonstration, at first as excited as kids in a candy store,” Kurman recalls. “The driverless car steered its way into traffic, driving at a steady pace of about 25 miles per hour. It meticulously observed stop signs and avoided other vehicles that drove behind, next to and ahead of us.”

Kurman was surprised to find, though,  that the novelty quickly wore off—and the  ride began to feel…just like any ride: “It felt almost like riding in a cab.”

That might be good news for those who view this innovation in transportation with skepticism or even mistrust. “It’s pretty mundane,” Kurman says. Still, she’s looking forward to owning a self-driving vehicle some  day. “It will be exciting when I buy a driverless car and punch in a destination—and then go in the back and sleep,” she laughs.

Cars aren’t the only things getting smarter. Download the award-winning GEICO Mobile app to help locate the cheapest places to get gas nearby, pay your bill automatically and request Emergency Road Service (ERS) at the touch of a button. Find it in the App store or on Google Play. 

By Mark Yarm

Illustrations by Otto Steininger

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  1. Rhodesia says

    I do believe the self driving cars are a technological advancement that will benefit us now

    and in the future.,but until it becomes more common, the first time some one who is driving

    the traditional non self driving automobile see’s a self driving vehicle , they will be so

    distracted by observing the self driving car , that the driver of the traditional non self

    driving car will be more prone to having an accident .What if there is a satellite or computer

    glitch, will we have these self driving cars stopped in traffic,especially on the highways.If

    these self driving features are used all the time , what happens when these people are now

    forced to have to drive the so called self driving vehicles, and their driving skills are

    lacking.There are so many scenarios for better or worse outcomes. It could definitely help

    people who are blind, and legally blind individuals have more freedom,especially in remote

    suburban areas.

  2. Maryann Jurek says

    It’s a bit weird, but I hope a lot safer. We have too many speeders on the road that cut in and out; maybe that will stop. How will these cars know when a car in the next lane needs to change lanes? Will it slow down or speed up? Will it know when someone is crossing the street; like a small child running after a ball etc.?
    I remember years ago a magazine article on these cars; there was a computer that you mapped out the route and the car took you there. A lot of ideas from the passed 50-60 years ago are coming true! It will be strange driving next to a car driving by its self.

  3. Penny Asher says

    I’m more interested in learning how purchasing a self-driving car impacts my insurance policies and rates? How is GEICO going to protect my self-driving car and price my insurance? Or perhaps there’s no more need for auto insurance since self-driving cars are supposed to be 99.9% safe?

  4. Aida says

    I would feel safe with this computized self driving car. If the astronauts can be sent to space and return on auto pilot. Why can’t we have our vehicles work just to drive on the road and use technology do this. .

  5. Harry says

    I think it can also be risky when there is bad weather involved. Would you put your life and yours on the hand of this technology? I’m not sure if I can trust this. I’d stick to the traditional self-driving way for now.

  6. KEVIN L. GREEN says

    In California the self drive car of tomorrow will be the vehicle to manuever on the freeways here in California. Nobody will be in a hurry. You do not drive, just read. No , traffic, no worry, no fuss.

  7. Jim says

    In today’s terror environment, it seems to me to be a clash of the midevils and the techno wizards who when put in the same realm will have to play hardball to protect the public. Given the sensitive nature of the technology, I fear the infrastructure for such a system will become an easy target. I will be hanging on to my car for years to come.

  8. Kent Newman says

    Interesting. Like everything new, it will be tested, doubted, even feared, I can envision the several situations in which it could prove useful, even bring about interest sufficient enough to consider a ‘try’ on some mode of public travel available.

    I have had new vehicles over the past several years. My new Prius, complete with the new gear shift – barely touch, and let go – proves somewhat daring, in these early stages, and adequate for me, thank you.

    • Kent Newman says

      My new Prius gear shift is an adequate challenge. Only my interest arena is invaded by this Passenger Seat innovation, not my bill fold.

  9. Cere says

    I’m an older adult, and already have problems with computerized TV’s, new computer operating systems, etc. I’m afraid I may not be able to figure out how an automated car works. Also, I don’t believe I would trust it! Computers get viruses, or just simply malfunction for reasons of their own. Won’t these cars do the same? I still have good reflexes and no accidents in over 30 yrs. I believe I’ll continue trusting my own judgement rather than a computerized car.