The Rise of Autonomous Driving

In 2010, announced a self-driving car project. Recently they released a video following a man named Steve Mahan as he sits in the driver seat of a Toyota Prius outfitted with cameras as the car autonomously drives him around his neighborhood. Steve is revealed to be effectively blind, and unable to drive himself, but the car drives him through a Taco Bell drive through and stops at a dry cleaners so that he can pick up his laundry. It is an awesome display of the utility and assistance that self-driving cars are capable of delivering.

Today, fully autonomous vehicles are not available to the public, but as technology advances these autonomous automobiles will become more and more prevalent. Although driverless cars are currently much too expensive for the average person. The Google Prius shown in the video costs upwards of three hundred thousand dollars. A study done by IHS Automotive forecasts that the price is decreasing faster than we think. By 2025, there could be as many as 23,000 driverless cars on the road and that by 2035 the self-driving car will have dropped in price enough so that number could be as many as 12 million. The technology, although not there yet, is rapidly advancing towards a future filled with driverless cars. At some point in the future, the majority of automobiles running on the streets will run without any human input.

And why shouldn’t people be replaced by machines on the road? Humans are creatures not necessarily designed well for the task of driving. The World Health Organization places the deaths caused by automobile accidents at 1.2 million world wide each year. Being behind the wheel of a motor vehicle is a dangerous thing, to both the driver and pedestrians.

This could be drastically mitigated by driverless car technologically. It is not for nothing that the Google self-driving car project boasts 700,000 miles driven without a crash caused by their automated cars (Politifact rates this claim as Mostly True). The cars, although being limited to mapped terrain, are unable to navigate tricky elements, and even have trouble recognizing new stoplights, are extremely good at navigating within their constraints. The cars do not get tired, do not stop paying attention to the road periodically, and react extremely quickly. A paper released by the Eno Center for Transportation predicts that autonomous vehicles replacing human drivers drastically decreases accident rates. With 90% self-driven vehicles on the road, the research predicts there would be 4.22 million fewer crashes and 21,700 lives saved, which is a reduction of roughly two thirds from the 33,561 automobile deaths in 2012. The transition from driven cars to self-driven ones would dramatically increase road safety.

However, the transition will be met with resistance. The idea of putting one’s life in the hands of a machine instead of yourself is an unsettling one. Even if driverless cars are statistically safer than a human driving one, does that mean that you yourself will want to relinquish the wheel? Probably not. In reality, if you are a safe driver, your personal chance of getting into an accident could be lower than that of a driverless car, seeing as the crash-rate statistic is dramatically inflated by bad drivers. But inevitably it will stop being lower. Eventually the technology behind the cars will become too safe, and even the safest of drivers will transition to the self-driving car.

The introduction of autonomous cars could see a drastic change in our society. The first thing to consider is the transportation industry. Currently a major component of our economy, the transportation industry employs millions of worker to drive goods in trucks, to drive buses, and taxis. Those jobs could become obsolete. No company would like to pay an employee full time over an automated vehicle that needs no salary.

Another concern is the increase of suburban sprawl. As transportation becomes easier, people may want to live further and further away from everything, and automated transport could facilitate this spread.

The whole transportation system itself could be re-imagined. Instead of individual ownership of vehicles, a subscription to a vehicle service could provide cars which pick you up and deliver you at your destination, and then go drive other people around. This system makes intrinsic sense, as most of the cars currently sit unused for the vast majority of their lifetimes. Similar shared car systems such as Zip Car are already in place, but the addition of driverless car makes a car sharing program incredibly convenient.

The question isn’t whether or not transportation will be automated in the future, the question is “how soon?” and “what benefits and repercussions will it have on our society?”


2 thoughts on “The Rise of Autonomous Driving

  1. suncg says:

    Awesome post!

    First off, I’m a huge supporter of driverless cars and all the lives they can potentially save. I remember watching a TV special about them recently, and how out of the few accidents driverless cars have been involved in, 100% were at the fault of the driver who HIT the driverless car.

    Optimistically speaking, the amount of lives saved every year by removing negligent driving would be awesome.

    It is interesting however, how much of the global economy revolves around cars. If car accidents were to drastically drop, what would happen to say, the insurance market? Obviously car accidents aren’t good thing, however it is important to note how severe this would impact our economy. If the car insurance market were to crash, then that could set off a chain reaction of similar crashes resulting in a national / global financial crisis (much like 2007-2008).

    All and all I think the push for automated cars is a step in the right direction, however it is ultimately the implementation of these cars that matters most.


  2. Ever since the idea was glorified in the sci-fi thriller I-Robot, I too have been fascinated with the concept of self-driving cars. While the positives (mainly the lives that they will undoubtably save) seem indisputable, I worry about the effect they will have on the transportation market. It is one of the U.S.’s largest markets, bringing in $1.3 Trillion dollars in 2012 and accounting for 8.5% of annual GDP. While this number does account for air and maritime transportation (but that too will probably be automated in the foreseeable future), I just wonder whether the apparent negative effect on the already-compromised labor market outweighs this increase in technology.


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