Autonomous Revolution: Society and Self-Driving Cars
Autonomous cars have grown significantly from the Navlab projects developed in the 1980's to the point that the United States Department of Transportation, in preparation for widespread implementation, released an official handbook of policies. Though the latest iteration of self-driving cars is relatively young, the vehicles are already showing promise in the commercial sector, with consumer versions not far behind. Given the budding technology's rapid development and penetration into both markets, it is undeniable that self-driving cars will have wide sweeping ramifications for society as a whole.
Automated Vehicles and Commerce
Last year, to promote the launch of their new app geared towards professional freight drivers, Uber Technologies Inc. successfully carried out a fully automated, 120-mile long freight truck delivery, marking the world's first shipment of its kind. While the project was merely a demonstration of self-driving technology, the economic implications of the delivery were apparent. Roughly 3.5 million Americans work as truck drivers, which equals nearly 3 percent of all working U.S. citizens. If self-driving freight trucks can be viably implemented on a national scale, it would pose a serious economic problem for professional drivers.
That said, given the advantages of automated trucking for both businesses and consumers, it could be argued that the positives far outweigh the initial employment ramifications. Large trucks are responsible for 300,000 auto accidents each year, with 4000 lethal incidents linked to 18 wheelers annually. A significant portion of these can logically be attributed to the tight deadlines required by ground cross country delivers which force drivers to push limited sleep schedules.
Automated driving would completely obviate this problem and, with the human factor removed, the only limiting factor to the vehicle's continued operation would be fuel. These would mean faster deliveries across the board. Likewise, both businesses and consumers would benefit from lower costs.
Vehicle platooning, a method of driving in which a group of trucks stay tightly packed and, moving at higher speeds, are able to use the road more efficiently. Platooning has been demonstrated to reduce vehicle emissions by as much as 20 percent, along with the added benefits of faster travel time and reduced fuel use. These savings trickle down to manufacturers, who in turn pass it along to consumers by selling products at a lower cost. Because of the high speeds required, platooning is only feasible with self-driving trucks.
Self-Driving Cars and Safety
Human intuition reels at the idea of trusting their personal vehicle to an automated driver, but the body of test drives and research tells an altogether different story. Just as commercial flight has become safer as modern planes have removed a good deal of necessary inputs from the pilot, so too will automatic cars, even partially, improve road safety. Though fully integrated self-driving features are some years off, current vehicles utilize autopilot features that compensate for gaps in the driver's perception. They employ blind spot monitoring and detection to allow for safe lane changes, allowing the driver to focus on a more manageable 180 degrees of vision.
These self-driving features will affect auto insurance premiums as well. As more control is taken out of the hands of the driver, the burden of responsibility, and therefore insurance rates, will shift from the driver to manufacturers, thereby adding a secondary layer of accountability and providing an economic check to auto manufacturers known to skirt safety lines, often resulting in mass recalls. In this sense, the relationship between driver and insurer will change dramatically, but the result is ultimately positive.
While this shift in burden of responsibility may initially prove complex, the sheer gains in terms of road safety outweigh any short term concerns as manufacturers and insurance providers adapt. After millions of miles in test drivers, self-driving cars were found to be ten times more competent on the road than even the safest drivers. Vehicle crashes accounting for over 32,000 deaths and over $240 billion in damages across just 2015, with each incident ultimately boiling down to driver error. Self-driving cars have the potential to reduce, if not outright prevent, these incidents of driver error, a clear win for society at large.