Self-Driving Cars: The Powerful Change About to (Not) Hit You
We are on the cusp of a revolution in transportation. In the next fifteen to twenty years, autonomous vehicles will begin to replace human-controlled cars, improving traffic, reducing pollution, and eliminating nearly all vehicle deaths.
There are three reasons why this change is inevitable: Safety, cost, and efficiency.
The Driverless Car World
First, what might a driverless system look like? Author Edward Humes in his book Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation, envisions a world in which you could subscribe to a mobility service, similar to your phone service. If you needed to get somewhere, you would order a car to get you, or schedule a regular pick up. On your way, you could check your phone, read the news, eat your breakfast, relax, listen to music, doze off – all the things you normally do (just kidding). The car would pick the best route and update itself based on traffic conditions. Once you got to your destination, the car would drive off to its next assignment. No more worrying about parking!
The most compelling case for self-driving cars is that they will be much safer.
According to the Seattle Times, “Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans from ages 1 to 34.” Last year, over 35,000 people died in traffic in the U.S., an average of 96 per day. By comparison, 71 people have died due to terrorism in the U.S. total in the last decade, according to Politifact.
Humans can be great drivers, but humans have limits. We get tired, bored, distracted, drunk, or angry. One study showed that human error was the cause of 94% of crashes.
Computers don't get tired. They don't have emotions. Robots are good at doing the same thing repeatedly.
As of November 2016, Google's autonomous cars have logged over 2 million miles with zero fatalities. All crashes except one have been due to human drivers' fault. When our roads are safer, people will feel better about motorcycling, biking or walking. Driverless cars could also set up that last-mile transport for people between their house and public transportation.
While researching this topic, I talked with my friends about driverless cars. Many of them said, "I love to drive. I love my car. My car is special." Which is understandable. Because of decades of relentless advertising and promotion by car companies, we think of cars as a part of ourselves. Cars have personalities, they are part of the family. Auto makers spend an estimated $44 billion annually on advertising, one fifth of total global spending. They wouldn't keep spending money like that if it didn't work.
There are signs that attitudes are changing. The results of a 2013 Zipcar survey showed that millenials would give up driving before giving up their computers or cellphones. “The future of mobility is not about paying for the car, it’s about paying for the trip,” says Lindsay Wester, Public Relations Manager for Zipcar.
But no matter how much we love our cars, we won't hold onto them if we can't afford them. Right now, most of us live with the financial costs of having a car. According to AAA, paying for gas, maintenance, repairs, tolls, licenses, depreciation, loan payments, parking, and insurance adds up to an average $8,698 every year to own and operate a vehicle in the U.S.
And at some point, we won't be able to ignore the human costs associated with humans driving cars. Because autonomous vehicles will be so much safer, it will just be too expensive to pay for car insurance. As Tesla CEO Elon Musk said, “People may outlaw driving cars because it’s too dangerous," Musk said. "You can't have a person driving a two-ton death machine."
Before cars, there were horses. People loved their horses, too. But automotive technology swept away the benefits of horses, and now hardly anyone uses horses as their main form of transportation.
Once we switch over to cars that do not need a human at the wheel, we start to gain enormous possibilities for the elderly, disabled, children, pets, and goods:
- The elderly won't have to give up their independence and they won't be a threat to others on the road
- Parents won’t have to chauffeur their children around anymore
- Imagine being able to put your dog into a self driving car; the vet takes your pet out on the other end
- Instead of having a pizza driver, your pizza might come in a tiny autonomous vehicle, just big enough for the pizza box.
Infrastructure will also become more efficient. Cars controlled by software can link together for greater driving efficiency. Traffic can merge rather than having stoplights. Instead of adding more lanes, we will be able to pack more cars in tightly because computers will be controlling spacing between cars.
One enormous benefit is the elimination of parking. When cars continuously move instead of having to park, we won’t need parking spaces in tight cities. Removing parking from our streets and cities will open up land for parks, housing, gardens, and wider streets. Just like you don’t need a corral to house your horse anymore, you’ll be able to convert your garage into a home office or second bedroom.
Taking people’s hands off the driver’s control means a blow to careers and entire sectors of the economy. Without humans at the wheel, we’ll see an enormous shift in many sectors: Auto insurance companies, traffic cops, all the mechanisms to deal with drunk driving – all that will change or disappear. Currently, truck driving is the most common job in 29 states including the entire south, most of the midwest, and both Texas and California. We’ll see the end of truck driving as a career and all the support systems that handle human needs associated with long distance trucking. According to an April 2016 article in Tech Crunch, “Gas stations, highway diners, rest stops, motels and other businesses catering to drivers will struggle to survive without them.”
Yes, it’s important to figure out ways to retrain or supply jobs to displaced drivers. Yet, just as we no longer find it necessary to employ elevator operators, or put humans back to work in intensive agricultural labor, self-driving cars are inevitable, due to the improved safety, efficiency, and cost savings that are coming. Autonomous vehicles are coming. Be ready.