These are truly exciting times in the auto industry. Semi-autonomous vehicles are already available – most popularly seen with slow-speed braking (to avoid children when backing up) and park assist technology. But we’re only at the beginning of the auto-auto evolution. Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, General Motors, nearly every car manufacturer, as well as technology companies like Google, are charging down separate paths in developing the same future: a world without drivers. According to a recent study, it is estimated that SDC’s will account for half the vehicles sold in North America by 2035.
These vehicle manufactures overwhelmingly say that safety is the primary motivation for this evolution of the automobile. While accidents and fatalities on the road have been steadily declining, more than 32,367 traffic fatalities occurred in the U.S. in 2011 (which was the lowest amount since 1949). That is a remarkable achievement, but still not nearly good enough. Can you imagine a world where driving under the influence, or distracted driving, is no longer a societal problem? How many future lives will be saved? It’s an extraordinary and noble thought.
Another motivation driving SDCs is efficiency.
So many of us spend hours sitting in traffic while commuting to and from work. Not only are we sometimes late, we’re also not very productive. Overall productivity will increase if we can use that time working instead of having steering wheel in our hand, concentrating on the road and the drivers around us. Roads and highways are only optimal conduits when a very small percentage of surface area is used. The greater the number of cars, the slower everyone moves.
As the world population grows our current infrastructure simply will no longer be able to sustain efficient automotive traffic. Look no further than places like India where travelling a few miles via car can seemingly take years.
In a future where all cars are self-driving, acceptable driving distances between vehicles will dramatically decrease. Think of future highways as rails without tracks and your car as a Pullman. Higher speeds can be maintained while cars enter highways via ramps as vehicles in the right lane automatically make space and then virtually link back together in a continuous and efficient chain.
I also believe such electric SDCs will be better for the environment because, aside from not burning gasoline, it may reduce the overall number of vehicles on the road. Families will no longer be forced to buy and maintain multiple vehicles. Imagine that instead of my car sitting in the office parking lot and me paying for parking in the office building, this car is used to drop the kids to school, me and my wife to office and running chores. Further, less space will be needed for parking spaces (which can be turned into parks or residential/commercial buildings).
The implications for such a future are profound. Aside from saving lives, industries will be changed forever, starting with the auto industry itself. Obviously the technology will be different, but if cars no longer require a driver, the century old design of a vehicle will certainly undergo radical change. With safety ensured and no one to pilot, vehicles will be comfort-oriented coaches, designed with passengers, not drivers, in mind. This will be a revolution in form and function.
The disruptions will not end there. Certainly auto insurance will become far cheaper (if needed) and lawyers will have to chase fewer ambulances. Trains (at least passenger trains like Amtrak and commuter rails) will likely fade away. Also, this is obviously not great news for taxi drivers and truckers, or anyone who likes to drive for that matter. Which brings me to my last point, and likely the greatest obstacle in achieving this vision of the future. Freedom.
While the advances in technology are certain to happen, people will just as certainly be resistant to accepting a completely autonomous car society. This is especially true in America, which has embraced the ethos of the open road and driving for the love of it. We as people have been raised to be in control of our destiny and behind the wheel. That sort of sentiment is not going away anytime soon.
Will people miss experiencing the thrill and handling of a fast car? Some will definitely feel so.
To accommodate them, perhaps there could be separate toll lanes and commuters can choose which method they prefer. In the meantime, automakers will continue to sell that dream and build cars for drivers, but as they do, they will be inserting the types of enhancements that will one day enable everyone to simply be passengers. It’s an interesting dichotomy.
So I think it’s fair to say that before humans see a world without drivers, they will be watching news reports of large groups of protesters pleading with governments not to take away their cars. I can see the bumper sticker now: “”I’ll Hand Over My Steering Wheel When You Pry It From My Cold, Dead Hands.”
These are called disruptive technologies for a reason. But it is my personal belief that safety will eventually win the day and humanity will eventually embrace the concept. I believe this change will eventually happen sooner than we all anticipate and I would certainly like to see it during my lifetime!
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