The idea of a self-driving (autonomous) car is just about as old as cars themselves. However, advances in radar, laser light, GPS, odometry, and computer vision are going to make self-driving cars a reality sooner than most people think. Currently, the versions of automated cars permitted on public roads are not fully autonomous. They all require a human driver at the wheel who is ready at a moment's notice to take control of the vehicle.
Among the potential benefits of autonomous cars is a significant reduction in traffic collisions. Approximately 60,000 people died in traffic accidents in the United States in 1970. That number had fallen to under 33,000 by 2013 as a result of airbags and other safety equipment. However, traffic fatalities are on the rise again, reaching over 40,000 in 2016. Most people assume that this is the result of distracted driving (e.g. texting). Researchers estimate that traffic fatalities could decline by as much as 90% once driverless cars become the norm. This would save about 35,000 lives per year.
Autonomous cars are also predicted to offer improved traffic flow, lower fuel consumption, significantly reduced need for parking space in cities, and a major increase in productivity as drivers are free to do other things rather than concentrating on the road.
Naturally, there are plenty of obstacles to widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles. These include the time needed to turn the existing stock of vehicles from non-autonomous to autonomous, reluctance of individuals to give up control of their cars, consumer concerns about safety, and lack of a legal framework/regulations for self-driving cars.
This is also going to have huge economic impacts. Millions of “driving jobs” will be lost (taxi drivers, Uber drivers, truck drivers, etc.) Also, we may see huge shifts (good and bad) in the fortunes of automakers and technology companies. There has already been a wave of mergers and acquisitions based on who has the right technology. Most recently, Intel agreed to pay $15.3 billion to acquire Mobileye, an Israeli company that makes chips and cameras for cars and trucks, including the self-driving variety.
We sent our very own technology guru, Clay Darland, to check out the state of self-driving cars. His report follows below:
Last month, through luck and perseverance, my wife Krystal and I had the opportunity to ride in a Waymo transporter. Waymo is the self-driving car venture owned by Google. The vehicle looked very similar to a Minivan. Our robot cabbie took us to a well-traveled (and Google approved) destination in downtown Gilbert. Luckily, Waymo has been testing its self-driving cars here in Chandler, Arizona, since last April. The vehicle arrived and the Waymo associate, who would be assisting and monitoring the ride, stepped out to greet us.
We had to jump through some hoops with disclaimers and legal stuff, but the “check-in” process was simple. After the pre-ride checklist was complete, we were off to our date night destination! The security in the car was second to none and the Waymo associate explained that he could take over the vehicle at any time. Whew!
On the road, the car was smooth, comfortable, and effortless. The machine drove like a very cautious and defensively-minded driver should. The car maneuvered very well through traffic and was respectable with the braking. I was amused that there was a very prominent red “kill switch” on the dashboard to stop the car in an emergency. I mean, seriously, you can't create a robot car and NOT have huge red kill switch!
We loved our first-hand experience with the future of travel and look forward to its continued evolution. I have found no reason (from a safety standpoint) to be concerned about this new era of transportation. Let me put it this way: our traditional yellow-colored cab ride back to Chandler was far more unnerving. Our first driverless car ride is something we will always treasure!