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A Driverless Future: Where We’re At, Where We’re Going, and How We’ll All Benefit When We Get There
Self-driving cars used to sound like something straight out of a science fiction novel. That’s not so anymore: several major companies (like Google, Tesla, and Ford, for example) already have working prototypes and are developing commercial models as fast as their resources will let them. Even now, many vehicles on the road are more automated than ever, with advanced features like lane centering and adaptive cruise control.
A fully driverless car revolution is on the horizon, but questions remain. Where are these cars at in development? When can I buy one? And when they do hit the market, how will we all benefit?
A Look at the Current State of self-driving Cars
Self-driving cars have been in the news for years, it seems, so why haven’t they been released to the market yet? To understand why, it’s important to be aware of the different levels to which a vehicle can be automated.
The Society of Automotive Engineers created a scale that defines six tiers of automation, from Level 0 — indicating no automation and full driver responsibility for the vehicle’s activities — to Level 5, where the vehicle can complete all driving actions regardless of conditions with no human involvement. The full tiers are as follows:
- Level 0: No automation
- Level 1: Driver assistance
- Level 2: Partial automation
- Level 3: Conditional automation
- Level 4: High automation
- Level 5: Full automation
Levels 0, 1, and 2
A typical car on the road today is categorized at a Level 0 — no automation, while most newer vehicles on the market fall under Levels 1 and 2 — driver assistance and partial automation, respectively. These newer cars offer assisted driving features like lane centering and speed control — a useful feature for stop—and—go traffic. In any case, the car is still operated by a human driver.
The most advanced vehicles available commercially today reach at most Level 3 — conditional automation. Conditional automation requires that the vehicle can operate autonomously in ideal conditions (as in, certain speeds and types of roadways), but has limitations beyond those. Audi and Tesla have recently released Level 3 models, which is a major step forward in the movement toward fully autonomous cars.
Level 4 — high automation — vehicles are by and large still in development, but major tech and auto companies have announced that they will likely have models ready for commercial purposes as early as 2021. Level 4 vehicles are almost at full automation, but can only use their autonomous system under known use cases (so not while off—roading or driving through extreme weather conditions). In these unknown cases, a human driver must be in control.
The Level 5 — full automation — vehicle is the truly driverless car. To reach Level 5, a car must be able to autonomously navigate through any road conditions or hazardous obstacles. While Level 4 cars will be here sooner than we think, it’ll probably be many years before we see widespread commercial availability of a fully automated Level 5 vehicle.
Experts are divided on exactly when driverless cars will fully take over our roadways — some question if this will ever happen, while others opine that it’s a safety must — but the point is we’re getting closer. The major roadblocks to development and commercial release continue to be regulatory and legal obstacles given the sensitive nature of the product. In any case, there are models available now with autonomous capabilities, and these alone have already started to demonstrate the possible positive effects of self-driving vehicles.
How Will a Driverless Future Affect You?
As newer car models advance up the automation scale, we’ll start seeing how their autonomous features influence safety, traffic conditions, and more. In the meantime, experts are making important predictions on how beneficial a driverless car revolution truly could be for our society.
Here are five key ways a driverless future could benefit us all:
Research shows that about 94% of car accidents are caused by human error, resulting in over a million fatalities worldwide each year. Unfortunately, the number of injuries and deaths from car accidents continues to increase due to distracted driving. The good news is that newer, partially automated vehicles — especially those equipped with collision warning systems — have already helped to counteract the number of accidents.
As you might imagine, removing human error from this equation is likely to prove beneficial. In fact, driverless cars are expected to lead to dramatically fewer deaths and injuries each year, with some predicting that there will be a future time where legislation will even prohibit human drivers entirely due to safety concerns.
Car accidents generate billions in economic costs each year, particularly in terms of property damage and medical costs. Fewer accidents and fatalities will naturally lower these costs significantly, both for car owners and for taxpayers, whose money supports healthcare costs and roadway construction.
It’s unclear yet to what extent driverless cars could affect car insurance rates, but generally, fewer accidents should necessitate lower insurance premiums.
An estimated 30% of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere in the U.S. alone are from transportation. Driverless cars will be able to navigate roads with more efficiency than their human—controlled predecessors, a fact that will lead to fewer greenhouse emissions for several reasons. First, fewer accidents will reduce congestion on the roads.
Vehicles may also be grouped into “platoons” that brake in tandem to keep the flow of traffic consistent. Less congestion means that cars are reaching their destinations faster and spending less time on the roads, achieving better fuel efficiency and releasing less CO2 emissions.
Vehicles may also someday be able to communicate with road infrastructure, such as traffic lights, enabling them to adjust their fuel consumption and emissions accordingly.
4. Transportation Services
Taxi services, rideshares, and public transportation will become faster and cheaper with the driverless revolution. As mentioned, vehicles will get to their destinations quicker due to less traffic congestion and greater navigational efficiency. Expect to see these services reduce their costs due to lower requirements in maintenance, gas, and labor. The cost difference between owning a car and using these services as a replacement will become wide enough to redefine how we get around.
More importantly, lower costs for transportation services should help drive greater economic mobility for disadvantaged groups. Geographic locations that may have previously been inaccessible to certain groups due to commute costs will open, influencing job demographics in new and socially positive ways.
Humans in the U.S. already spend on average 12 days per year in traffic. With driverless cars, commutes will shorten due to vehicle navigation efficiency, less congestion, and fewer cars on the road as taxi and rideshare services become more affordable than individual car ownership.
Time spent commuting can be used for working, socializing, or for leisure, resulting in less anxiety and more mental readiness when reaching work. Less time in traffic also provides the freedom to get more done in a day.
The impact of self-driving cars on society is expected to be vast, with health, social, and economic benefits alike. In all cases, a driverless future is coming … the question that remains is when.
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