How Self-Driving Cars will save Thousands of Lives

December 26th, 2009, the night everything changed, for so many people.

“’This horrible accident has affected so many families and individuals by taking two young women from this world at a very young age. I want everyone to know that I am truly sorry for the outcome of this tragic accident,’ DelSignore said while facing the families of the victims, who were seated in the front row of the courtroom and cried loudly along with the defendant. ‘If I could bring these two young women back I certainly would. If I could trade places I most definitely would.’” Missoulian

I remember that night, the night I woke up at 2 AM to find 11 text messages on my phone. I was a freshman in high school. I remember thinking this had to be a dream, how could something this horrible happen just after Christmas? I started at my phone in shock as I read all of my text messages, over and over, all of them saying that four of my classmates had been hit by a drunk driver, and two had been killed.

Memorial for Ashlee and Taylor in East Missoula Photo: Michael Gallacher/Missoulian

To be honest, the days that passed are still a blur; I remember going to the school cafeteria two days after the accident to be with my classmates (it was still winter break, but they opened the school up and had counselors available). I remember going to the basketball game at our cross-town rival, as the freshman team members played in honor of their lost teammates, but most of all I remember the service, and how many people were there celebrating the lives of two lost much too soon.

Although I was not particularly close to the Ashlee or Taylor, I did have choir with Taylor in middle school, and her talent and love for singing always inspired me. I was mainly in choir because I needed the fine arts credit, but I could tell she truly enjoyed it. Every time I looked over at her, she had a smile on her face. One day after of my friends had passed away from cancer we started a new song, a song about how time keeps going even after a life is lost; it hit a little too close to home, and I excused myself to get a drink of water. When I came back into the room and sat on the risers Taylor looked at me, kindly smiled and kept singing. It was then that I realized what a kind-hearted person she was.

I never had the opportunity to meet Ashlee; we ran in different circles as she played basketball and I was busy with club volleyball. But we did have a couple of mutual friends, and they described her as a very outgoing, funny person with a knack for making people smile.

I truly cannot imagine the pain that this accident caused for all the family and friends of Ashlee and Taylor. The Holiday’s are supposed to be a bright and happy time for people all over the world, but for the family and friends of Taylor and Ashlee the holidays are not so bright. And while every day is different I can imagine the holidays are especially difficult. To have two beautiful lives taken way so soon is a true tragedy.
It is also tragic that this accident easily could have been avoided, along with so many other deaths caused by drunk or distracted driving.

The Statistics

In 2009, the year of the accident, there was 81 alcohol-related fatalities in Montana alone. According to MADD The same year there was 10,839 alcohol related fatalities in the United States. And it’s not getting much better, “In 2015, 10,265 people died in drunk driving crashes — one every 51 minutes — and 290,000 were injured in drunk driving crashes.” That’s 10,265 people that lost a mom, dad, daughter, son, or best friend. That’s 10,265 deaths that could have been avoided.

Drunk Driving Deaths 1982–2014 *

And it gets worse.

The “ average drunk driver has driven drunk over 80 times before the first arrest” and “50 to 75 percent of convicted drunk drivers continue to drive on a suspended license” MADD

Something has to change; this is unacceptable.

What if these drunk drivers did not have to drive home, what if their car could just take them home? I know there are other options, such as a designated driver, taxi, Uber, public transit, or walking. However, even with these options, there is still well over 10,000 deaths a year. Not to including the thousands of other accidents and deaths caused distracted drivers or other human errors. According to the National Safety Council, 2015 was the deadliest driving year since 2008; they estimate 38,300 people were killed on U.S. roads, and another 4.4 million were seriously injured. Take a moment and let that sink in.

I will say it again; something has to change.

Self-driving cars

The answer? Cars that are driven by artificial intelligence (AI), otherwise known as self-driving cars.

Google’s self-driving car

Now, I know the thought of a self-driving car is scary, I was nervous when I started thinking about it too. But to be honest computers cannot be worse than humans, we have set the bar extremely low. The Inevitable a book by Kevin Kelly that discusses technologies of the future states,

“One of the advantages of having AI’s drive our cars is that they won’t drive like humans, with our easily distracted minds” (Kelly, 2016).

Take a moment and by honest with yourself, how many times have you sneaked a look at your phone, typed out a quick test, or searched for a certain song on your playlist? How many times have you been thinking about that upcoming test, or meeting and not paid attention to the road? It happens to everyone; we are only human after all. Self-driving cars, powered by AI, can solve all of these problems, and most importantly they are the answer to the huge problem of drunk driving.

I have often found myself wondering how many lives would be different if the man that hit my classmates had a self-driving car. The self-driving car wouldn’t have veered five feet off the road, it would have stayed on the road and driven right past the girls, and they would still be here today.

Now let’s take it a step further, how many more people would have a mom, a dad, a brother, a sister, an aunt, an uncle, or a friend if cars were driven by AI instead of humans?

The answer? Hundreds of thousands.

What is at stake?

A Rolling Stone article (you should read this, it is fantastic) discussing Artificial Intelligence and self-driving cars quoted Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s self-driving-car project as saying,

“We really need to keep in mind how important [the adoption of autonomous vehicles] is going to be….We’re talking about [the lives of] 30,000 people in the U.S. — and 1.2 million worldwide (a year). If you think about the opportunity cost of moving slowly, it’s terrifying.”

When I read this it really stuck with me, we truly cannot afford to wait much longer. Drivers are becoming more and more distracted every minute. Think of the difference between a driver ten years ago, and a driver today. Today’s drivers have the distraction of phones, with texting, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, even Spotify can be distracting as you search for a good song. This means that drivers back then did not bump into a parked car because they were texting a friend, or roll through a stop sign as they were changing the song on Spotify.

We already trust robots to make our cars more than humans they have a precision that is not possible for humans, this is discussed in The Inevitable,

“The fewer humans touching our car as it is being made the better” (Kelly, 2016).

If we do not trust ourselves to make cars, why do we trust ourselves to drive them?

How self-driving cars work

Self-driving cars are programmed to follow to rules that humans do not. A self-driving car will come to a complete stop at a stop sign, yield to the pedestrian waiting to cross the street, and wait for an adequate amount of space before pulling into a lane; all traits that seem to go out the window if a human driver is running late, or having a bad day. These cars adhere to the rules that are set up in an algorithm, a very very complex algorithm. And although the algorithm is not now, nor never will be perfect, it is very dynamic.

What they do

The algorithm in the car does much more than just give it directions. It has been meticulously coded to react to the bad scenarios that human drivers are put in every day, such as swerving to avoid a deer, stopping to avoid distracted driver that is veering into the lane or stopping to avoid a child in the road. They have radars, lasers, and cameras that they use to see what the human eye cannot. They use this information to make real-time decisions.

However, there are some scenarios that do not have an easy option, whether it is a human driving or AI, not all accidents can be avoided, just greatly reduced. Most importantly a car controlled by AI will never be drunk, eliminating the 10,000-drunk driving related deaths each year. That fact alone makes the case for AI-driven cars almost undeniable.

The network effect

What will be interesting to see is the network effect that will be created by self-driving vehicles. A network effect can be described as something that gets better as more and more people use it. Take Facebook, for example, if Facebook only had one user, it would not be very useful, however as more people join, there is more people to connect and share with, making Facebook much more valuable. I believe the same will be true with self-driving cars. If the self-driving car can just go about the task of getting the rider from point A to point B without having to avoid distracted human drivers some of the dangerous scenarios listed above will go away. A car controlled by AI would not get tired and veer into the next lane, nor would it try to cut down travel time but pulling into a lane without adequate space. In different terms, having two self-driving cars next to each other is much safer than having two human driven cars next to each other, and safer than having a human driven car and a self-driven car next to each other. This is because self-driving cars are much more predictable than human driven cars.

What is next?

It is easy to think self-driving cars are a thing of the future, and may never take off, but the fact is they are already on the streets, and Business Insider estimates that there will be 10 million self-driving cars on the road by 2020. That is 10 million self-driving cars in just over three years. Who knows if it will actually happen that quickly, but it will happen sooner than most of us think.

As with most new technologies, the self-driving car has its fair share of critics, and rightfully so, there are lives on the line after all. Still, just because there are critics does not mean it will not materialize. There will be a time when we look back and tell our kids, or grandkids how we used to drive the car ourselves, or how people did not think it was possible for a car to drive itself. At one point people felt as though “online shopping and online communities were an unrealistic fantasy that betrayed common sense” (Kelly, 2016) and would not take off. The truth is that change is inevitable, and at some point, something will replace the self-driving car, and people with think it was inefficient and a huge waste of time. Maybe it will be Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. Who knows, there is always something better in the works.

This proposed Hyperloop could get passengers from LA to San Francisco in just 35 minutes

It is because of this inevitable change and consent improvement that cars will begin to be purchased, and used in different ways. Remember when you used to have to own a movie or go to the movie store to watch it? When it wasn’t just readily available through Netflix or Amazon? Well, the same “subscription service” that Netflix and Amazon have provided will soon be applied to cars. The transition has already begun. It is called Uber. You no longer need to own your car to get around, especially in a big city. In the future no one will own a car, they will simply subscribe to a service, such as Uber, request a car/SUV/truck, whichever they need, and it will drive itself to person’s house, pick them up, drop them off, then go pick someone else up.

What this means

The change to self-driving cars and “cars as a service” will be a big change for customers and car companies.

For the customers, it means they will no longer be a “driver” or an “owner” but instead a “renter” or “subscriber” and a “rider.” The good news is because you do not own or drive the car, you won’t be responsible for maintaining it, and you will always have an updated version. The bad news is that with lower responsibility comes less control.

For the car companies, they will need to decide if they want to sell their cars to the “service” companies, or if they want to give that service themselves. Take BMW for example; they are currently working on a self-driving car. They will need to decide if they want to sell their cars to a service company, such as Uber (although they are working on their own self-driving car) or create a business that customers can subscribe to. The choice they make will greatly impact their marketing decisions, as it decides if they are communicating B2B or B2C.

Either way, as technology changes it will be even more important for all parties to keep open lines of communication. Because self-driving cars are new, it will be very important for marketers to listen to the customer, and what they want out of the 4-P’s especially product, price and place. The first self-driving car to come on the market may not be the one the customers want. They may want specific features, such an “emergency” steering wheel in the car, or detailed road map that shows how the car is making the decisions, or they may not want these things, we do not know. Marketing research will also play a large role in creating the right product, at the right price in the right place. One thing that is for sure is that marketers are going to need to focus on showcasing the safety features of the car and showcase the number of the lives that will be saved with this new technology. They will need to give customers just enough information so that they know how the car works, but not so much so that they become overwhelmed. It will also be helpful to point out that they already use AI in their everyday lives, they just might not know it. Something as simple as choosing a movie based on Netflix’s recommendations for you, or asking Siri for directions is AI, just on a much less sophisticated platform.

Final thoughts

We have covered a lot of ground, from drunk driving to driving fatality rates, to self-driving cars, to how we will use cars in the future, to what all these changes mean for customers, companies, and marketers. Nevertheless, I think it is important to refocus back to where we began, and that is drunk driving, and the thousands of avoidable deaths it causes.

AI and self-driving cars are a way to solve the drunk driving problem, so before you think about how scary it might be to have a car drive itself, think about how scary it is for a drunk human to drive that car.

About the Author

Jaiden Nisbet is currently a senior at the University of Montana, studying Management Information Systems and Digital Marketing.


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