Self-Driving Cars Aren’t Just For Rich People


Autonomous cars, commonly known as self-driving cars, have rapidly transitioned from being another crazy Google-X experiment to being a key component of any car company’s business plan. To many they might seem like another futuristic idea that’s lack of practicality or usefulness makes it better suited for a sci-fi movie than for the real world. However, it doesn’t take a whole lot of statistics or imagination to see just how game-changing these self-driving cars will be, both in terms of traffic safety and in terms of changing the way we live our lives.

Safety

I love to drive. I’m always glad to volunteer my chauffeur services (when I have a car) and I will often take the long way back home. I just got a Zipcar subscription in college and, as my friends at CMU have found out, I think it is the greatest thing ever. However, even I find the power I have behind the wheel down-right scary.

In high school I did policy debate and at the State tournament my senior year, we ran an affirmative case that proposed the government implement a technology called Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) in order to increase safety. From the research we did on this case, I learned a lot of eye-opening, scary numbers about what goes down on the road.

Every year, over 42,000 people die and 2.7 million people sustain injuries from car-related accidents. And thats just the numbers in the United States. Globally, 1.3 million people die and between 20 and 50 million people are injured ever year. Looking at these numbers from a body-count stand-point, they are on the same magnitude as the top 10 major death-causing diseases in the US. This is an issue that should garner the same public support and outcry as cancer and heart disease, however it seems to evade the public’s eye.

If the humanity of the situation isn’t enough to get policy makers on board, then one look at the dollar-figures should be all that it takes. It is estimated that the injuries and deaths from car-related accidents cost the economy a staggering $230 billion. Any plan to help the economy should include a discussion on how to reduce these numbers.

Even without inspecting the numbers, the logic of allowing humans to drive cars simply doesn’t hold up anymore. Looking at other fields, there has been a trend of giving up human-control to computation.

Take the aircraft industry for example. Before advanced flight management systems allowed for smooth auto-piloting of the major flight-tasks, pilots had to pay attention to every detail while manually flying which was not only an unimaginably stressful task, but also very dangerous. In the past 30 years there has been a shift from minor automation to full-scale automation. In fact, pilots only have to control the plane in very limited situtations. Advances in these technologies have lead to a steady decline in plane-crash incidents and fatalities.

Plane crashes statistics http://www.planecrashinfo.com/cause.htm

The bottom line is that humans make mistakes. And this is where self-driving vehicles come in.

A study conducted a few months ago by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute highlights the large safety benefits that could result from taking the “safety-critical functions” away from error-prone humans and allowing the computer to take over. It is said that 90% of accidents are caused by human error and so, even after factoring in the new risks added by computer malfunctions, self-driving cars could cut down in a sizable chunk of those crashes.

It really just comes down to a numbers game. In terms of processing data about our surroundings, our brains simply can’t compete with the power of computing. The concept of a “blind spot” will cease to exist. It will be impossible for red-lights to be run. And, whether you like it or not, all cars will come to a complete stop at stop signs.

Factor in the concept of Intelligent Transportation Systems and the only limit to the safety we can achieve on the roads will be the depth of our government’s pockets. The main idea behind ITS is that every part of the road, from the traffic lights to the side railings to the cars, will communicate with each other. In a world with full-blown ITS capabilities, our cars that can drive themselves will not only take in data from their own sensors, but will also be sent live data from nearby cars about their whereabouts. If a car begins to drift towards another, it will automatically know it is on a collision course and steer clear as soon as possible.

Everything Else

While safety concerns underpin the importance of autonomous vehicles, the side effects that they will have on our everyday lives are insanely exciting to think about.

Look both ways before taking a sip of your cappuccino

Imagine you are a trying to catch a movie at the mall. You hop in your car and, while your car cruises to the theater, you make a bunch of calls to your friends to make sure they get there on time. You get there a few minutes before the movie and don’t have time to find parking. You just jump out of your car and your car goes and parks itself. After the movie you open the GoogleCars app on your iPhone 42S and tell your car where and when to arrive to pick you up from the movie.

Now imagine you are married and living in San Jose. Your parter has to wake up super early to commute to Mountain View but your work starts later and is in San Francisco. It’s also 2035 and you’re still feeling the effects of the great crash of 2030 so you can’t afford two cars for the two of you. No problem! Your car can take your parter to work in the morning, then drive itself back home and pick you up to go to SF.

A self driving taxi

Now imagine you are the CEO of Uber or Lyft or a Taxi service. You are very sad because after Elon Musk pivoted Tesla into an autonomous electric vehicle taxi service, your companies ceased to exist.

As you can probably tell, there are endless applications of this technology. Self-driving cars aren’t just going to add cool things here and there. They are poised to cause a complete paradigm shift and redefine what can and cannot be done. With companies like Google, Uber, and Tesla as well as institutions like Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and MIT all leading the charge towards autonomy, we should see the tech surface in the next few years and become completely integrated into our lives in the next 15–20 years.