Impact of Self-driving Cars

Benefits and Potential Problems

Robert Spendlove Sep 12, 2018

The self-driving car revolution is on us. For years, futurists have talked about the impacts society would experience with this change. In the 1960s, The Jetsons cartoon imagined people living in the clouds, with a robot maid and a flying bubble car. None of this has come true (yet), but who could have imagined the world we live in today?

What Is a Self-driving Car?

When people think of a self-driving car, they often imagine the end result of the technology — a vehicle that can operate with complete autonomy, with no human interaction. While this is accurate in a way, there is much more to the technology. Self-driving cars actually operate along a spectrum of autonomy. On one end, there are simple improvements to the driving environment, such as smart cruise control, lane assist or brake assist technology. On the next level are cars that can handle dynamic driving tasks but may need human intervention at times. The final level of autonomy offers a vehicle that can operate without any driver present or with no input from passengers.

Current Status of Self-driving Cars

Many car companies are developing self-driving technologies. While Tesla gets the most attention for its self-driving improvements, companies like Volvo, General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Audi are also developing autonomous cars. Other companies, like Uber, Lyft and Waymo (Google) are using this technology to change the way people get from place to place. Most of the current work is in the testing stages; however, companies are increasingly including autonomous technology in cars now coming to the market.

Benefits of Autonomous Cars

Self-driving cars are truly a game changer. They will have a major impact on the nature of transportation. Commuters will hop in their cars and read the paper or answer email while traveling to work. Families going on vacation will load up the SUV, set the destination and relax until they arrive. Transportation infrastructure will change because autonomous cars can travel closer together and in smaller lanes. Downtown parking lots may disappear since self-driving cars will drop off riders and then either go to an offsite storage facility or pick up the next rider in an increasingly shared economy. 

Autonomous cars will vastly improve safety on public roads. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, every year more than 33,000 people die on U.S. roads. Shockingly, 94 percent of these deaths are caused by human error. Implementation of this new technology could save tens of thousands of lives every year in America alone. The positive effect on countless families’ lives will be enormous.

Potential Problems of Self-driving Cars

With any disruptive technology comes possible downsides. How will a self-driving car handle fog, rain or snow? How would an autonomous car react to a washed-out road or a child darting into the street to get a ball? Testing of self-driving cars is happening mostly in tightly controlled environments, like city streets and closed tracks. In the real world, drivers often have to operate in less-than-ideal conditions.

The economic impact of self-driving cars could be dramatic as well. Millions of workers in the trucking and transportation industries could be impacted. If a self-driving car gets in an accident, who is responsible? How will transportation funding be impacted, given the fundamental difference in how cars operate? And how will car companies protect integrated vehicles from being hacked like a home computer? All these questions must be addressed as this technology advances.

What's Next?

Self-driving cars will usher in a new day in travel and transportation. Planning for them will be essential. Leaders at all levels of government and business must develop policies that encourage the timely development of this technology while addressing concerns that many people will have about the change.

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