Autonomous cars can make commutes more efficient, reduce congestion and free up road space for new uses. They are also expected to be safer, eliminating driver error which is the cause of most fatal car accidents.
But autonomy will not come without its challenges. Its greatest obstacles are not technical but social.
The most obvious benefit of autonomous vehicles is increased safety. Drivers don’t have to worry about their hands being off the wheel or not paying attention, which is a big reason why many people choose to purchase partially self-driving vehicles.
Despite this, human error is still one of the leading causes of car accidents. And rushing to market without fully tested safety systems can have tragic consequences, as the recent Uber crash in Tempe, Arizona and a Tesla autopilot crash in California demonstrated.
Autonomous technology will likely be used in ride-sharing vehicles like Lyft and Uber as well as delivery trucks and even “platoon” vehicles that travel together to deliver goods to customers. This could make it possible for workers to live closer to their jobs, which is better for the environment and makes urban centers more livable for everyone. It will also reduce congestion and free up road space for public transport or other uses.
Even the most advanced autonomous systems are prone to mistakes. A few missteps can lead to tragedy. For example, an Uber prototype operating in self-driving mode fatally struck a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. Even basic assistive technologies like automatic breaking, adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping have failed to keep up with the road’s challenges.
Autonomous cars could be more reliable than human drivers, with a streamlined development process and extensive testing. They’re expected to save 80 billion lost work hours a year in the US and UK, reduce the cost of insurance, maintenance and parking by 15% and solve the ‘last mile’ problem of connecting people with their public transport destination.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has released guidelines to help states encourage autonomous car testing while protecting public safety. But TuSimple’s Baruah believes the government needs to go further with a rigorous vetting system similar to that for flight licenses to ensure the technology is safe and effective.
The self-driving cars of the future will be electric, enabling them to avoid emissions, thereby helping the environment. They will also be networked to communicate with each other and local infrastructure to seamlessly choreograph traffic movements, avoiding congestion and reducing energy consumption.
Cars equipped with advanced cameras and sensors will scan their surroundings for obstacles or pedestrians, allowing them to detect other vehicles that may be in their way. They will be able to determine how far they need to move to the side to allow other drivers to pass them.
As a result, they will be able to save 3.1 billion gallons of gas annually and increase lane capacity by 500%, according to the Rand Corporation. This could reduce fuel costs, making them more affordable for everyone. This will attract people who would otherwise not drive, such as the elderly and disabled, creating new jobs and improving social cohesion. It will also make it easier to skip suburbia and move to city centers, reducing sprawl and its environmental impact.
Whether they are used as taxis or delivery vehicles, autonomous cars have a number of environmental benefits. For example, by reducing traffic congestion, autonomous cars can reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, according to the Rand Autonomous Vehicle Technology Guide. They also can increase lane capacity, which reduces the amount of time drivers waste sitting in traffic and can boost highway speeds.
A driverless car is likely to reduce and even eliminate the need for kerbside parking, freeing up space for other uses. And, because the cars are electric, they won’t require fuel stations to operate.
While the perks of driverless cars are significant, some people may resist their adoption. In fact, a recent survey found that more than 60 percent of respondents aren’t willing to ride in a self-driving car, and almost 70 percent expect them to be no safer than traditional cars. Miles says that auto companies can counter these concerns with a comprehensive strategy and an end-to-end business case for the vehicles.