Recently, I stumbled on an online article about the Google effort to lobby the State of Nevada to allow self-driving automobiles to be used within the state. That article is available at the following link:
A more recent and broader article about self-driving cars was posted on Friday, March 31, 2012.
If self-driving cars were to be broadly available, they would profoundly affect how society functions today. There are many obvious consequences from having the ability to acquire and use a self-driving car:
Self-driving cars enable elderly people, people with disabilities, and young people without drivers’ licenses to have more mobility.
How many of us have had to deal with the wrenching problem of getting our elderly parents to give up driving regularly, either because their diminished physical or mental capacity? We make the loving, but painful, decision to get them into assisted living residences to give them the ability to fulfill their needs without having to drive, since, in most cases, neither they, nor we, can afford to have someone drive them around.
Imagine a future time in which they can get everywhere, including traveling long distances by car, with a self-driving automobile. This is a technological advance that has to improve and be broadly deployed as the Baby Boomer generation reaches the age at which its ability to continue driving is seriously challenged. Elderly people with diminished capacity might very well remain in their independent residences far longer, especially if they routinely use assistive technologies that help them perform daily chores and help caregivers monitor their progress.
Similarly, people with disabilities that prevent them from driving, such as people with sight impairments, people with paralysis below the waist, or people with an amputated right leg, can now have the ability that they have lacked with these disabilities. They will have the ability to leave home and not be dependent on other people for transportation.
Young people who are old enough to run errands, but not old enough to drive, can be a passenger in a self-driving car, although the car would need to be remotely controlled to prevent a young person from unlawfully driving the car.
Self-driving cars will reduce the incidence of accidents from a wide range of causes.
With self-driving automobiles, people who insist on driving under the influence of alcohol will have no excuse for accidents. They will be able to get home after having the impairment associated with excessive alcohol consumption.
Similarly, people who are very tired do not have to worry about fatigue causing accidents. They can leave the driving to technological systems that never get fatigued.
Roads will get safer for everyone, in addition to those who will no longer be operating automobiles if self-driving cars get broadly deployed.
Self-driving cars will significantly increase societal productivity.
I would welcome the day when I can read, write, carry on a telephone conversation, or perform other tasks while in transit by myself. Public transportation is never going to be available everywhere or at all times as an alternative to the single-occupant vehicle. The self-driving car is a solution that fits the demographics and infrastructure of American society far better than building out expensive public transportation systems.
Along with the electronics needed for cars to be self-driven would come broadband Internet access that would be used for multiple additional purposes. The source of activity on web-based networks would change from fixed locations to automobiles, with very different levels of stress on cellular towers and a significantly expanded need for Wi-Fi service.
Self-driving cars will significantly reduce the need for parking spaces.
The biggest waste of real estate is the use of valuable land next to commercial and retail facilities and other public places for parking, especially surface parking. What if we could have our self-driving automobile drop us off at work, be programmed to go to our home and then be summoned to pick us up at the end of the workday? Zoning laws could be changed to reduce the number of spaces allocated for parking, and we would also see a significant reduction in the amount of traffic cruising around for parking spaces.
By reducing the need for parking spaces, self-driving cars would specifically increase the number of people taking the train, where commuter train service is constrained by the unavailability of parking adjacent to train stations. Having the ability to program your vehicle to go back home after dropping you off and to return when you arrive back at your home town train station would eliminate that problem.
Self-driving cars should reduce gasoline consumption.
We use additional gasoline when we drive because we do not drive ours most efficiently. A self-driving car could presumably be programmed to drive in the most fuel-efficient manner possible.
Self-driving cars will increase the carrying capacity of our roads.
Because vehicles will be driven intelligently, with reduced numbers of accidents and with optimal reaction times, more cars can operate in the same space for two reasons:
- Cars can be spaced more closely together when most are self-driving cars.
- The self-driving car will not make decisions to change lanes frequently, which, when it happens, creates unnecessary congestion.
OBSTACLES TO SELF-DRIVING CARS
- No one trusts a self-driving car today.
Today, we do not feel comfortable completely giving up control of the operation of our car. Technology fails, particularly at its earliest implementation stages. I believe that the path to self-driving cars will be evolutionary. Initially, it will be aided by technology that guides our driving and reduces the number of decisions or actions we have to take. For example, cars will be programmed to detect potential sources of collision, such as crossing a lane into the path of oncoming traffic, and will automatically adjust themselves to avoid a collision. The driver may not even be conscious of this adjustment, but it will be a wonderful, if undetectable, assistive technology.
We may also see individuals operating in a dual situation for a number of years. In other words, they may be able to control the car’s operation, or to program the car to drive itself. There is precedent for this, with the way car manufacturers have incorporated cruise control into car design. Over time, as individuals gain confidence, they will surrender control, especially on highways on which they have to drive long distances.
- Insurance companies provide no economic benefit to individuals who travel in self-driving cars.
State insurance regulators do a very poor job in staying abreast of opportunities to help insurance companies reduce their risks and match their underwriting better with the risks they cannot reduce. Insurance should be as inexpensive as possible to enable more people to do more things affordably.
To achieve the goal of risk reduction and risk management, insurance companies need to be able to price their insurance products based on real behavioral risks, and to induce policyholders to change behaviors that increase risks. For example, automobile insurance should be adjusted for individuals who not only drive less and drive more safely, but put themselves into situations that are inherently less risky, in terms of when they drive, what kind of vehicle they use, where they drive, and how they use their vehicle. Someone who uses a self-driving car should get lower rates than someone who maintains complete control over the vehicle and subjects it to human error potential.
Differential insurance rates would accelerate the adoption of self-driving cars. I do not believe most Americans feel a need to drive. They want mobility, privacy, and control over their transportation. The self-driving car gives them all of that, without the hassles of driving and parking the car.
Self-driving cars would require far more carrying capacity for a car’s electrical systems and would consume more fuel than a traditional automobile.
Think about what adds to our electricity usage today that was not a source of electricity usage 40 years ago: computers, high definition TVs, other digital displays that never turn off in a home, and many electronically-controlled appliances that our parents never had.
Our electric power grids are being strained today because of the transition from mechanical power to electric power. Similar, the self-driving car will see a much bigger increase in electric power consumption than the increase which accompanied the routine installation of air conditioning in automobiles over the last few decades.
Yesterday, I met with the police chief in our town, who told me that the biggest issue with his fleet of police cars is the huge drain on car batteries from all the electronic devices in his cars: the portable computers and display screens, the radar devices, the detectors of Lo-Jack vehicles, and the special lighting required for both the top and sides of police cars (the latter for helping other drivers see a police car parked sideways on a road to block passage at the scene of an accident), to name a few. As a result of all these electronic systems, police cars wear out batteries every few months, instead of every few years. All self-driving cars will have these problems to a lesser degree, so they will have to be addressed.
Self-driving cars will increase car usage and create more fuel consumption.
Because people who are not driving today, such as elderly people, people with disabilities, and younger people will now be on the road, as a result of the enhanced capabilities of self-driving cars, there will be additional fuel consumed. Similarly, if self-driving cars return home, instead of being parked, more cars will be on the road, instead of being parked near where they have dropped someone off. The fuel consumption will increase. We must find alternatives to the traditional internal consumption engine. The biggest self-limiting factor for more self-driving car usage will be the cost of gasoline.
The self-driving car will come, because there are many benefits to it, and it will profoundly change our society when it does come. I believe that it will address enough of the issues people have with driving today that it will displace public and group transportation as the alternative of choice for people who cannot or will not drive.
However, like any change that alters how people think about the world, there will be unpredictable consequences, just as there were when automobiles came into broader usage.