A paradigm shift in the automotive industry is about to radically change transportation as we know it. Consider the following statistics:
- The average American spends 396 hours driving per year.
- An estimated 36,200 traffic fatalities occurred in the United States in 2012.
- United States consumers burned an average of 367.1 million gallons of gasoline per day in 2011.
These statistics are rather disheartening, yet are the byproduct of our vehicle-centric society. But now imagine a world where we no longer have to sit behind the driver’s seat of a car, where traffic fatalities become practically non-existent and fossil fuel consumption is drastically reduced. Seems pretty nice, right? Well buckle up, because this seemingly utopian future will become reality thanks to the driverless car (where, ironically, you actually won’t have to buckle up).
Technology now allows computers, rather than human drivers, to maneuver a vehicle from Point A to Point B using GPS systems and road sensors. Google, a founding pioneer of the technology, designed a driverless fleet that has accumulated over 300,000 accident-free miles. This has spurred companies such as Toyota, GM, Lexus, Audi and Volvo to accelerate driverless technology research. First-generation autonomous technologies, such as automated parallel parking, accident avoidance systems and adaptive cruise control are already being incorporated into vehicles. Federal government agencies are also joining the research fray. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been conducting vehicle-to-vehicle communication research and expects to issue an agency decision on connected vehicles by the end of 2013. Considering this rapid progression of driverless technology in the past several years, driverless vehicles are not a far off aspiration. They are the present. And they are undoubtedly the future.
From a pragmatic standpoint, driverless vehicles are beneficial on all levels. Traffic safety would no longer be a concern. Computers do not get tired, distracted or annoyed by other drivers. They eliminate the most dangerous element of driving—the human element. Commuting would no longer be a labor, rather it would be an extension of leisure time where one can eat, sleep, surf the internet, work or watch a movie. Consequently, society could see productivity increase and a more involved labor force as transportation limitations would be largely eliminated.
Furthermore, aspects of driving we consider social norms—stop signs, stop lights, general road signage, and overhead freeway lighting—would become obsolete. Vehicles’ ability to communicate and seamlessly weave between one another at intersections eliminates the necessity of traffic controls. Street lighting and signage will be a vestige of human-driving history: the car does not require lights or signs to know where it is going. Multiple vehicles for a family would no longer be needed: the car could continuously run and bring every individual to their required destination in a more efficient manner than multiple vehicles could. Even vehicle ownership is a concept that could become outdated. Many individuals will likely choose the convenient and relatively inexpensive option of driverless taxi services over vehicle ownership.
Driverless cars would also increase efficiency and reduce the amount of fossil fuels burned. Volvo has researched driverless “road trains,” where driverless cars would group on the freeways to improve aerodynamics and reduce wind drag. This alone could improve fuel efficiency by 30%. Additionally, driverless cars could be built using lighter materials and smaller engines because of their improved safety compared with human-operated vehicles, further improving fuel efficiency. Enormous societal benefits, including lower levels of air pollution, a healthier population, and a significant reduction of the nation’s carbon footprint, would likely result.
For many, the real interest of driverless vehicles involves nascent economic markets. Technology to set up vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication would need to be developed and built. Interaction between smart phone technologies and vehicles would be also inextricably linked. Mobile apps allowing driverless cars and users to interact (e.g. texting a vehicle you are ready to leave work in 10 minutes and the vehicle is waiting outside to pick you up) would need to be developed and operated. Transportation companies offering driverless trucking and taxi services will probably emerge. Hospitals nationwide would no longer annually treat millions of accident-related injuries. Companies greening urban landscapes of unneeded parking garages will find plenty of business. Urban designers will be in demand to find new and inventive ways to create urban environments that optimize the efficiency of driverless vehicles.
The possibilities offered by driverless cars are endless. Introduction of such technology would alter nearly every component of our lives: where we live, how we spend time while commuting, the design of cities and vehicle ownership, among others. This being said, mass production of driverless vehicles is still years away. Some automotive experts believe we could see driverless vehicles on the road in the next 10-15 years, while others believe it will be upwards of 50 years. Driverless cars would require extensive infrastructure investment and the estimated time of arrival of driverless vehicles depends on the cooperation between auto manufacturers and the government. Insurance and legal issues would also need to be clarified before driverless vehicles become commonplace. Moreover, consumers will have to buy-in to the technology to create sustainable demand. Although initial buy-in may be slow, once consumers recognize the safety of the technology and the utility gained, this blogger believes everyone will be jumping on the driverless train. So don’t buckle up and don’t get your hands on the wheel – just jump in the back, flip on your favorite TV show and enjoy the ride.