Self-driving cars are the future we need

Do you remember the scene in Total Recall, when Arnold Schwarzenegger hailed a self-driving cab? “Hi, I’m Johnny Cab, where can I take you today?” Imagine getting in the car, typing or speaking a location into your vehicle’s interface, then letting it zip beside expressways at 150 kph with absolutely zero congestion and reach your destination while you read a book, surf the web or nap.

Self-driving vehicles — the stuff of science fiction — are coming, and they’re going to radically change what it’s like to get from point A to point B. Many tech companies — Uber, Google, Nutonomy and the likes — are already clocking thousands of kilometers a day testing self-driving cars on the streets. We are already hearing people heralding a fantasy-esque near future where humans parade around town chauffeured by a robot. Perhaps, it won’t be long before we forget all about sitting in traffic jams and putting up with the loud honks and the pollution. As per Boston Consulting Group’s report, the autonomous vehicle market will grow exponentially. By 2035, more than 12 million fully autonomous vehicles are expected to be sold per year globally. The study also expects the market for fully and partially autonomous vehicles to grow from US$42 billion in 2025 to US$77 billion in 2035.

However, recently all we have heard about are accidents involving these self-driving cars. We heard about the Nutonomy accident in Singapore a few months ago, and now a self-driving Uber car was involved in a high-speed crash in Tempe, Arizona. According to the police, no one was seriously injured and the Volvo XC90 SUV, which was driving itself at the time, had the right of way and bore no blame.

At first glimpse, the crash — which flipped the Uber onto its side, and smashed the other car’s windows — looks like yet more bad news for Uber. But if the other car caused the Tempe collision, it’s a stark reminder of why self-driving cars matter: Humans are genuinely terrible drivers. Don’t get me wrong; humans are great drivers when they are sober, calm rested and on-task. This great driving turns to dust if the person is drunk, distracted or drowsy. And to top it all, there is road-rage. There are millions of drivers out there who have admitted to hitting another car on purpose.

More than 30,000 people die on US roads annually, a number that spiked to 40,000 in 2016 according to America’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In India, more than 400 people are killed every day in road accidents, and these numbers could rise because there are more cars on the road than can be handled.

As per McKinsey’s report, driverless cars can reduce road accidents by 90%. Moreover, self-driving cars have the potential to reduce the number of cars on the street. These cars, the tech companies are racing to build, could save a whole lot of lives.

If self-driving cars can make accidents so rare, I wonder who would need a car made with heavier gauge steel and so many airbags.

But we must understand, that the safety promise of self-driving technology does not lie in the skill but lies in its consistency. Of course, a self-driving car might never win the Singapore Grand Prix, but it won’t get wasted, distracted, sleepy or rage-y either. If every car on the road carried this capability, that can keep the car in its lane and a safe distance from other vehicles, fatal crashes would reduce significantly. Here’s why: Say someone is just about to run a red light; the other cars with the right of way would already know that (thanks to all the sensors and vehicle-to-vehicle communication) and stop to make sure they are safe.

If these tech companies can deliver these more advanced cars and embrace vehicle-to-vehicle communication that can navigate complicated cities, they could stamp out more accidents. Of course, making roads safer isn’t the only motivation for these companies. After all, they are salivating over the huge market that Boston Consulting Group pegs at $42 billion by 2025. But hey, if any of these companies can deliver these self-driving cars that put gravediggers out of work, I’d say that it is money well earned.