In a world where cars can driveIn part one of our "Future of Driving" series, we looked at the current state of self-driving car technology and tried to predict how that technology would progress in the coming decades. Now we're going to assume that the technical problems we discussed can be solved and explore how self-driving cars could change society.
Some benefits of self-driving cars are obvious—less time spent behind the wheel and fewer accidents—but the consequences are likely to be much broader than that. Among the most intriguing are much greater use of taxis, more widespread use of smaller, more energy-efficient cars, the virtual elimination of parking lots, and a dramatic transformation of the retail sector.
Throughout this article we'll be linking to essays by Brad Templeton, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is currently the chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In recent months, Templeton has become an evangelist for self-driving vehicle technology, speaking and writing extensively about the topic. Many of the predictions we make in this story are based on ideas sketched out in Templeton's writings. If you're interested in more discussion of the topic, Templeton's web site is the place to go.
An important caveat before we get started: predicting the future is hard, and self-driving technology is still young enough that we're guaranteed to get some of the details wrong. One only has to glance through past predictions about the future to see how difficult it is to predict the social effects of new technologies. Nevertheless, we think it's worthwhile to spend some time thinking about the promise of this technology. We don't have all the answers, but we hope that talking about these benefits will inspire the next generation of engineers and entrepreneurs to turn the dream into a reality.
The deadly human driver
Highway safety has improved steadily over the last half century. In the United States, five people died for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1960. By 1980, cars were killing 3.3 people per 100 million vehicle miles. In 2000, the rate was down to 1.5. But progress has slowed since the turn of the century, and this may be because most of the low-hanging fruit—seatbelts, anti-lock brakes, stronger drunk-driving enforcement—have already been plucked. The introduction of advanced collision-prevention software, which we discussed in our first installment, will help to push accident rates lower. And we can expect the introduction of fully self-driving cars to push accident rates lower still.
That's important because for all our progress, we still lose far too many people on our highways. Here in the United States, there were six million car crashes in 2006, injuring 2.5 million people and killing 42,000. Worldwide, according to World Health Organization figures, cars kill about 1.2 million people each year and injure 50 million. Many of these crashes are alcohol-related: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that in 2004, 14,400 Americans died in crashes involving at least one driver with a blood-alcohol level of .08 or higher. Other crashes are caused by drivers who are fatigued, distracted, or reckless.
Self-driving cars will never be drunk, tired, or inexperienced. They should make designated drivers as anachronistic as linotype operators, freeing suburbanites from worrying about how they'll get home after an evening of drinking. Similarly, people on long road trips won't need to worry about falling asleep at the wheel. They'll be able to take naps while their cars drive for them. Hundreds of truckers die every year, and the automation of the trucking industry could eliminate the need for human truck drivers, saving hundreds of lives in the process. And far fewer teenagers will have their lives cut tragically short due to crashes caused by their lack of experience behind the wheel.
In short, a car that drives as well as the best human drivers would save tens of thousands of lives in the United States and hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide. And most likely, we'll be able to do even better than that. Computers have much faster reaction times than humans do, and they will be "looking" in all directions simultaneously. Self-driving cars may be able to avoid many of the mistakes that even experienced human drivers make. They won't have blind spots, they'll have better sensors, and they will be able to react almost instantaneously to unexpected problems, giving them the ability to recover from dangerous situations that no human driver could have handled.
Dramatically fewer accidents is the most obvious—and probably the most important—benefit of self-driving technology. But self-driving technologies will also bring significant changes to peoples' daily lives. Next we'll consider how self-driving technology could transform the transportation system, reducing congestion and sprawl and dramatically improving energy efficiency.Original here