June 30, 2015
With fully autonomous cars set to hit the road within the next 5 years, it is time to start talking about what we can gain from this revolutionary disruptive technology. Google is heading the drive to make these commercially viable and has spearheaded many advances in autonomous car technology as part of its Self-Driving Car project.
Yet many questions remain unanswered. With no real legal structure in place in any country to deal with autonomous and non-autonomous collisions, the insurance and liability implications of driverless cars, and a whole host of other issues could come into focus as the technology becomes more commonplace.
Driverless cars are coming fast, and if we decide we want them on our roads we have to start thinking about how we are going to address these issues so they can hit the ground full throttle.
So first, let’s paint a picture.
A vision of the future
Imagine the design of new cars when they don't have to be made with the driver in mind.
Passengers could sit facing each other akin to train travel, or even lie down – look at this infographic. Windows would become an aesthetic feature rather than an absolute necessity, and the angry morning commuters stuck in traffic are replaced by hundreds catching forty winks on their way to work.
The streets would become full of robot taxi services, presumably ordered with a pre-programmed destination with our smart phones similarly to how Uber currently operates.
This feels like it is straight out of the Jetsons, but it may surprise you to learn this could easily happen within our lifetimes. So let's stop talking in hypothetical sci-fi futures and get down to the facts and figures.
The potential benefits to driver safety are undeniable. Of the 1.2 million people worldwide that die every year in traffic incidents over 90% are caused by driver error. From the guy that cut you up yesterday, to the driver who insists on merging at the last second, there probably isn't a single person reading this who doesn't have a list of drivers they want off the roads. But would you be happy if the only way to get them out from behind the wheel involved you giving up control too?
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk prophesied last month that one day driving a car yourself could be illegal due to the huge safety risks compared to riding in a car driven by software. While this sounds great from a ‘lifesaver' perspective, stopping us driving for our own safety could take away the thrills, and perhaps livelihoods, of petrolheads the world over.
The crash rate of driverless cars could be as low as 10% of accidents involving human drivers. According to a couple of quick sums that is just over 100,000 deaths down from over a million – is that a fair price to pay for losing our freedom on the road?
So how close are we?
We don't need to worry about letting go of the steering wheel just yet.
There are five levels of automation for driverless cars. Levels 1 and 2 cover things like lane-departure assist and anti-lock brakes. Level 5 is where driving the car yourself would not even be an option – this is full automation in effect.
Right now, some cutting edge, road legal cars are already at Level 2, but the development period from Level 2 to Level 5 could be quite lengthy as the technology gets exponentially more complicated.
One of the cars featuring some of this technology is the Cadillac CT6, which is coming to a road near you in the near future. Cadillac have announced that that their new CT6 will include adaptive cruise control (a Level 2 feature), and possibly Super Cruise technology, which allows drivers to go hands-free when driving in stop-start traffic. Tesla have also announced plans to introduce automated steering within the next three months.
But are we ready for driverless cars?
There is currently no real legislation in place in most countries that deals with driverless cars, but this could change any day now. In think tanks and the corridors of power there are plans afoot to try and pave the way for automated vehicles to arrive on our roads as soon as the end of the year.
It's not just our legal infrastructure that needs to be prepared for these new vehicles though. It is predicted that the cost of updating the road network nationwide to account for driverless cars could bring with it a large cost indeed.
Yet set against the reduction in the costs of accidents this may appear a trifle. Chief engineer at Honda's R&D Center, Toshio Yokoyama, revealed recently that in the US traffic deaths and injuries lost $78 billion of productivity annually. The hope is that this number will shoot down as driverless cars prevent most of these incidents. Potentially billions could be retained by our economies, on top of the priceless number of lives saved. This does indeed look like a real ‘win/win' scenario!
So, are driverless cars the time and life savers they are held up to be, or are they just another way we are becoming over-reliant on technology? For now, it seems like both, but either way there isn't much most wouldn't do to catch some extra sleep on the way to work in the morning.
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