Last 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.”
It 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.
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By Mark Yarm
Illustrations by Otto Steininger