What’s the big deal with autonomous vehicles?

What’s the big deal with autonomous vehicles anyway? Is it going to make any difference whatsoever to you and me if a car can drive itself? Yeah, it seems like a nice gimmick to have, like cruise control or power steering, but is it fundamentally going to change the world?

Let’s have a look at some of the ways fully autonomous vehicles will impact our society, because I think few have covered the full extent of the importance.

When I say fully autonomous, I mean a vehicle that is capable of driving itself under any condition, day and night, city and highway, open country and tunnels, without any human involvement. A vehicle like this would be able to drive without anybody inside, and would be many times safer than a human driver doing the same task. This is what is referred to as Level 5 Autonomy. You’d get in your car, punch in the destination and the car would take you there without needing any further input from you.

What consequences would the introduction of the fully autonomous car have?

The consequences of this are many and wide spread, so I have decided to split them into subjects.

Personal time

Like millions of people around the world I commute to work by car. Five days a week I drive 45 minutes to get there and then 45 minutes again to get back home. That is 1.5 hours per day, 7.5 hours per week, 30 hours per month, or 15 24-hour days every single year. It is a staggeringly large amount of time to waste. It is basically like working a full extra day a week.

This is time I could have spent with my family, reading, doing sports or should I feel so inclined, to work. Instead I am sitting staring out the windscreen of my car.

If I had a fully autonomous car, the time commuting to work could be used much better. I’d get in the car, set the destination and I’d lean back the seat and get a nap before arriving. If I had an autonomous car, I could even move farther away from my job and it would not cut into my spare time. I’d sleep less at night because I’d get more sleep in the car.

I could also get some work done in the car. Pull out my computer and get some of those pesky emails out of the way.

Urban planning

An enormous amount of real-estate in a city is dedicated to cars just being parked. They are sitting there either in a parking lot or at the side of the street faithfully waiting for their owner to come and pick them up again.

If cars were autonomous there would be no use for them to park in the already congested city. Your car could drop you off at work, then drive itself out of the city to more open areas where space isn’t a problem. Later, when you needed to get back home, the car come pick you up. In cities, parking houses would make little sense. With space at a premium in cities, using prime space for simply placing a car during hours seem inefficient.

Traffic

With the possibility of the car being able to drive itself, it would be natural to imagine the number of cars on the streets would go up. Even if the total number of cars would remain constant, traffic would increase as cars would spent more time in traffic. They would be able to drive both when they were occupied, but also when they were alone, maybe looking for parking outside the city. You can also imagine that it would be easy to send your car on errands. Send it to pick up the shopping while you spend your valuable time doing something you actually like – we all hate shopping, right?

It is easy to imagine that the car would spend more time in movement than it currently does, so total traffic might go up.

If you look at traffic jams you quickly notice that many of them are not necessarily caused by the absolute amount of cars in transit, but rather but drivers frustrated by the slow movement of traffic. They push their luck n intersections and end up causing grid lock and obstructing traffic even further. If autonomous cars were good enough drivers, much of that would not happen.

Another thing that often causes traffic jams are accidents. Not only can they block traffic lines, but curious drivers might block traffic in lines that aren’t otherwise affected. Autonomous cars would be many times safer than human drivers and car accidents and hence traffic jams might soon be a thing of the past.  Interconnected autonomous cars would mean even safer driving still

Society and economy

The autonomous car could spell bad news for people employed in the transport sector. If cars could drive themselves, lots of jobs could be lost. Some of the companies that are pushing the hardest for getting to the driverless car are some of the companies that employ most drivers. Most notably Uber is working hard on giving cars full autonomy. Then they can get rid of that annoying middleman between them and the customer that is the driver. Tesla has also figured this out and already announced a ride sharing service. Currently more than a quarter of a million people in the US alone are employed as taxi cab drivers. If the car could drive itself, there would be little or no use for them.

Add to that the number of truck and long distance drivers, and we are looking at a serious number of jobs in danger of disappearing or at the very least transforming into something completely different.

Long distance driving would be changed significantly. Currently professional drivers are forced to stick to certain limited drive times as they need to rest at set intervals. With autonomous vehicles, these mandatory breaks would not be necessary. An autonomous vehicle would be able to go on for hours or even days without needing rest. This would mean a significant drop in transportation costs and therefore merchandise could be transported further at less cost.

The autonomous car is just one of many ongoing developments that is forcing us to re-think traditional jobs. More about that in my post The industrial revolution and the end of scarcity.

If the car could drive itself, everyone could go by car. There would be no reason for people to get driver licenses. You could send your car to pick up your children even though they aren’t old enough to drive themselves. The elderly, who sometimes are isolated because they cannot move around, or must move out of their houses because they can no longer drive a vehicle, would be able to move around much easier.

Another aspect is that you might need less vehicles. Some families that currently have two cars, one for each parent, could perhaps get by with only one car, that would drive the two parents to work in turn. You could also imagine entire communities sharing cars. Where ten families before would own ten cars, they could perhaps own only five between them since one could always be summoned to come and pick you up.

Security

I have touched upon this earlier, but autonomous cars would be much safer to drive and to be around than human drivers. We as people get tired, distracted, and impatient. All things that can cause accidents. Sometimes we drive aggressively because we had a bad day or because we are in a hurry. We make bad decisions and compared to a computer, we are hopelessly slow. An autonomous vehicle would have none of these flaws. It would be able to see traffic 360 degrees around it. It could anticipate problems occurring behind it where a human would not be looking and act to avoid it. And it would be able to take those decisions much faster than we could. It can use input from the surroundings that our senses simply do not have access to. Like radar, ultrasound, infra-red sensors and many other.

The autonomous car is basically a computer, so it could receive information from the cars around it. Ad-hoc networks could be formed on the fly so when one autonomous car detects an object, it can be broadcast to the cars in its vicinity and they can all react like a giant hive-mind. All we as humans can do to communicate with the other human drivers around us is use our horn, lights and middle finger.

Every year 1.25 million people die worldwide as a direct result of driving accidents. This is a staggering number. More people die from traffic than from wars, drugs, violence, suicides, or drowning. We pay a very high price for getting around indeed. Though there will be a transition period where the security of the autonomous car will only be somewhat better than that of human drivers, eventually, autonomous driving will be many times safer than human controlled vehicles. I imagine that the death toll will never reach zero, but it is easy to imagine something very close to that.

Energy and environment

If the cost of transportation goes down, more miles and kilometres will be driven. Hence more energy will be needed to fuel these vehicles. Cars are constantly becoming more fuel efficient but only a certain amount of energy can be extracted from combustion and the energy needed to accelerate a certain mass is not going to change. There is a need for vehicle propulsion to move to clean energies if we want to avoid creating even more polluted environments. Air pollution is a huge health concern worldwide, mainly in cities where exhausts count for a large part of cause. Air pollution is identified as causing all sort of diseases, including cardiovascular, pulmonary and cancers.

Electric vehicles using energy from renewable clean sources are the only true future for the autonomous car.

Summary

The autonomous vehicle will be a seismic shift in transportation with consequences for almost every aspect of modern life. Both at the individual level and as a society, there are some challenges, but mainly opportunities and benefits for having self-driving cars.

And when are we likely to see it happening? Some say as as soon as 2017.

Others might have thought more about this than I have. Can your foresee any additional mayor effects of the self driving car? Leave a comment and let me know.

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