If ever there was a disruptive technology, it’s self-driving cars. Imagine a world full of autonomous vehicles, and the ripples through all aspects of our lives.
Visionaries see a time when our roads will be filled with computer-driven cars, cars that completely control navigation – selecting the route, setting the speed, obeying traffic signals. Artificial intelligence systems in the vehicle will sense road conditions and surrounding objects, people and animals and integrate this information with data from other systems such as weather reports and traffic conditions, to get from point A to point B safely and efficiently.
To make this a reality, two major areas of technology have been advancing for the past two decades and will continue for decades to come:
1. Car technology. In broad categories, this consists of automated sensing, integrating and controlling. Automotive components and systems have been developed to sense the environment (a current example is the camera that shows what’s behind the car when backing up, and the detector that beeps more frantically as the car approaches an object). The next step is a system to integrate various information and control a subsystem of the car, such as breaks that automatically engage when the car is about to run into something. Subsystem control is available now and truly self-driving cars are being tested on the streets of California. Various sources¹ suggest we are ten to twenty years from truly self-driving cars dominating the roads.
2. The Internet of Things. The capacity to coordinate cars and traffic relies on a level of connectivity of many things, including each car, the traffic lights, community events (for examples a few thousand vehicle trying to exit the stadium parking lot after the game or a road closure for a charity event). This capacity is growing, perhaps exponentially, but I believe is still in its infancy.
Self-driving cars are anticipated to bring all manner of benefits, such as:
- safer roads. No more human driver error.
- more accessibility. Anyone can sit in the ‘drivers seat’ of an autonomous vehicle, regardless of their age, mobility, visual acuity or what they’ve been doing previously, like sitting in a beer tent.
- more leisure time. The time we all spend driving becomes time to read, chat, or catch up on our communications (safely).
- less traffic congestion. If the cars control the traffic, they can optimize the volume, distributing the traffic so there are no jams, rerouting around accidents long before everything comes to a halt, except…
- fewer accidents, because the cars should be better at avoiding them. So, that’s even less congestion and more efficiency.
Depending on how the system evolves, we may stop owning cars and call them on demand. This could eliminate the need for parking, further easing congestion and freeing up a lot of real estate. When ready to go for groceries, send a text and the car appears. The cost will depend on the distance travelled, number of passengers, other items carried, whether we are willing to make a slight detour to share the fee. The fee would encompass maintenance, fuel, license fees and insurance.
What will become of taxi drivers? Other industries are likely to be effected. If there are fewer traffic violations and accidents, we’ll need fewer police, ambulance workers and tow-truck drivers. Auto insurance could be a thing of the past. If the cars are centrally dispatched and maintained, then there’ll be less need for fuelling stations and auto-mechanics. There may be less wear and tear on the roads and less construction.
All this efficiency and safety sounds very appealing, even if it has the potential to impact many industries and professions. Cars are a big part of our lives. People like to to drive. Think of the family tradition of loading everyone into the car, with no specific destination, and going for a drive. There are parents, at wits end to comfort a crying child, who bundle the infant in their car seat knowing that just ‘driving around’ is a sure fire way to send the little one into silent slumber. I get in my car to see new places, turn down roads I’ve never been down to find out what’s there, and take the long way because there’s a breath-taking view or tricky curves where I can put my steering skills to the test.
I’m sure we all hope autonomous vehicles will make road rage go away, but I’m skeptical. Impatience and feeling a lack of control seem to fuel road rage. The driver of the car that fills my rearview mirror who can’t get home fast enough to the icy cold beer he/she needs after a day of being scrutinized by the boss may not appreciate a self-driving car. An autonomous vehicle is unlikely to break speed limits, totally unsympathetic to the rider’s need to get where they want to go faster (although I can imagine that if we develop a safer automobile transit system, speed limits could increase).
When I was a kid, getting your driver’s license at 16 was a significant rite of passage. With self-driving cars, there may be no more licenses. With luck on my side, fully functional driverless cars should fill our streets about the time I’m too old to get my license renewed.
As a new technology, self-driving cars have the potential to deliver enhanced safety and efficiency in our transportation systems in an environmentally positive way, but they also have the capacity for profound social and lifestyle effects.
¹ As examples: