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. Debra says

    Excellent. Children can be driven to school. Elderly citizens and people who cannot drive can be more independent. Bar owners should have a fleet of driverless cars for those drinkers that don’t know when they’ve had enough. However, the impact on taxi’s and public transportation will be huge.

  2. Ruben says

    Nice article, but,,. it should have being titled – Believe it or Not – self driving cars by 2020!

    Within an ideal location like Disney World or similar “fantasy land” attraction parks I can see using self-driving electrical vehicles for specific applications. In this cases, this is old technology concepts used for many years to move people with trains and the likes of “it is a small world” rides. This concept has been in place for a long time.

    I the real world that we live in today, I will address your question What do you think of self-driving cars? with other questions – Is GEICO going to insure me or my self-driving vehicle in 2020? If my self-driving vehicle is in an accident will the “your Honor I was not driving that vehicle plead” be valid? Would you really want your neighbors to have driverless electric vehicles in a school zone where you send your kids? Would GEICO be writing insurance policies for self-driving manufacturers against class-action suits. Would I need to renew my driver’s license ever again?

    There is a lot of hype today and the Googles of the world have extra cash to burn, but does anyone really believe that there are going to be millions of self-driving vehicle in Miami, Manhattan and L.A. by 2020 or within our life time, if ever.

    You have brought a good point of discussion on self-driving vehicles. We have autopilot features in most commercial airline planes today, but no one will fly in a plane without a pilot, fight engineer and co-pilot on-board. At best, driverless vehicles will simulate airplane technologic. But if anyone interprets self-driving vehicles to mean that they will be able to take a nap in your way to work or school you are living in “fantasy land”

    We don’t live in “fantasy land”.

    Nice article.

    • Seph Gordon says

      People used to think it was impossible for a car to go 40 mph. They used to think it was insanity to think that a thing could fly in the sky and transport people from one country to another.
      In years to come we’re going to say, “People used to think it was impossible to have self-driving cars as the normal mode of transportation”.

  3. Jonathan Pullen says

    Obviously there will be a period of transition. Ultimately, I am confident cars driven by computers – with senses like radar and lidar (not to mention 360 degree vision), the ability to communicate with each other, and a single-minded focus on the task at hand – combined with technologies like artificial neural networks – will be far safer than cars driven by humans. It will take us some time to get the bugs out, but it’s well worth doing. Among other things, these vehicles open up the possibility of no one actually having to own a car – you click a button on your app, and the vehicle of your choice arrives shortly thereafter. We’d no longer need huge parking lots at malls – in fact, in general, these vehicles could be told ‘go park’ and then summoned to the curb for loading.

    Of course, they will probably only be a footnote in history as evolving battery technology and air traffic control makes hexacopter-style flying cars more and more practical. Of course, *those* will have some really interesting insurance problems. The hope is that they can be made redundant enough to not fall out of the sky if a motor, controller, prop, or battery fails, while still being made cheaply enough for us all to rent time on them. Only time will tell.

  4. Pro-auto car says

    Can’t wait for a driverless car. It will even park itself. Stress free life! I do wonder about cost and liability. Google car tests showed that it’s cars driven by humans that cause accidents. So, what’s not to like about the autonomous cars? Grandma and grandpa, people with disabilities, people who do not like to drive can now sit back and relax?

  5. Virginia says

    My brother has special needs and this would allow him to have greater independence. I’m excited – the dangers of everyone texting while driving or just driving badly has become par for the course, simply expected. This enhanced technology will cut down so many accidents from distracted drivers!

  6. Richard Sanchez says

    ir’s time to go driverless. We could uae the time doing something else specially when it is bumper to bumper traffic.

  7. PSmith says

    How does a driverless car see and react to the flagger at construction zones? Does it see the ambulance and pull over and stop? Does it see the DOT truck on the shoulder and move into the left lane? Does it see the EXIT CLOSED warning sign? Or the Bridge OUT sign? Does it see the yellow or red flashing lights on a school bus in the opposite lane? Does it see the shady area on the highway 1/4 mile ahead and knows it might contain black ice?

  8. Carl says

    If the self driving car has an accident or kills someone, who is liable? Will one need a license to own a self driving car?

  9. sean says

    This is really interesting information on self-driving cars. It seems really far down the road, but if self-driving cars dominated the roadways, what effect would that have on auto insurance? In an ideal world, there would be no wrecks in these types of vehicles, so how would auto insurance companies evolve to meet whatever market needs existed?

  10. Craig says

    I’m against self-driving cars. They would be thrown off by a paper bag blowing in their path. How can they anticipate the actions of another driver or pedestrian? Drivers make mistakes, but computers lack the judgment that humans have. Driving requires human judgment.

  11. Wise Guy says

    I dont like the idea of the car taking over my Brakes. First they need to work on Tech for helping humans drivers prevent accidents and improve bad habits.
    Like Sonar adjusted for speed to warn of tailgating!, Heads-up Night Vision to show obsticals beyond headlights (& in fog), Ultrasonic Deer chasers, and just simple Windshield Defrosters!
    All stuff that has already been around yet never put into production.

    A Heads-Up GPS could be great for teaching new drivers – “Too fast”, “Turn your blinker on”, ect.

  12. Manuel Aponte says

    It is the future advancement in the car industry and it is excellent. But the biggest problem will not be the autonomous car. The biggest issue will be for the autonomous car sharing the roads we their peers man driven cars….

  13. Harry of Carrollton, TX says

    The future of self-driving cars is an exciting prospect for me, since my vision restricts me to daytime only driving. And even then, I don’t like driving to unfamiliar places, but a self-driving car can make this fear mute, as well as allow me to travel at night. I can’t wait for the future to get here!