In the past decade new technology has brought about many big changes. The pace of that change has been exponential. But you’d better buckle up because we’re on the verge of another major one: autonomous cars. And while you may be tired of new technology being called “disruptive”, it really is the best way to describe the kind of change autonomous cars are about to bring about.
What could our daily lives be like in the years ahead for owners of full self-driving Teslas?
Today, you might use your Model S or Model X to get to work, where it sits in a parking lot until it’s time to come home. But with full self-driving capabilities, a Tesla could pick you up, drop you off, and even carpool the kids, all without human guidance. Autonomous vehicles can easily shuttle passengers between gaps in transit routes — and even take them door-to-door. With this level of autonomy, passengers might not need to own a car at all — they’ll just order a car when they need one, and it will drive itself over to help out.
But the possibilities for autonomous vehicles don’t stop there. Right now Tesla is developing software that will allow your car to be useful even when you’re not using it. In the future, you might be able to send your autonomous vehicle out independently to act as an autonomous taxi or delivery vehicle and earn you money.
Ultimately this could all change the way we own and use cars. For many, cars might stop being prized (and expensive) possessions. And car “ownership” may become more like a service or utility, like electricity and home internet.
Historically, cars have had a massive impact on the physical world. How will autonomous cars affect the environment?
Autonomous cars may well end up reducing the need to own a car. Many will rideshare for cost or convenience, reducing the number of cars-per-household and leading to fewer cars on the road overall.
Fewer cars means less traffic, less noise, and streets that are calmer and safer.
Street parking, parking structures, and even the suburban two-car garage could become things of the past. That will not only free up real estate, allowing for more greenery (which will obviously help the environment), but less concrete means less heat being reflected into the atmosphere, and that will help cool down cities (and, potentially, the world as a whole).
Shared or reduced vehicle ownership and more efficient use of vehicles generally (through ridesharing, ride hailing, more convenient use of transit, more efficient traffic flow/patterns capable through autonomous vehicles, etc.) will also have positive environmental effects.
In short, autonomous cars aren’t just offering a change in the way we drive, they are offering the potential for much bigger changes — and much greener changes.
What does the “autonomous future” offer in terms of safety?
Many technologies associated with autonomous driving are already common in today’s cars. In 2014 European regulations required all new vehicles to include autonomous emergency brake systems. We also have technology such as dozing driver alarms, active cruise control, and lane keeping assist. Combined, these technologies are already significantly reducing the number and severity of accidents. One study in France estimated a 15% reduction in fatal pedestrian accidents and a 38% reduction in pedestrian accidents with serious injury. This equates to thousands of lives saved every year.
Data from the NHTSA’s 2008 National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey shows that 93% of crashes are caused by “human error” and “driver error”. Does this mean we will see a 93% reduction in vehicle accidents when autonomous vehicles are the norm? Time will tell, but there is little doubt there will be a significant reduction in accidents as we are already seeing with the driver assist technologies in vehicles today.
And, of course, all this is just the beginning.
Autonomous cars will be packed with a suite of sensors that will be far more accurate and attentive than the human senses. They will have a constantly-updated picture of everything around the car at all times, be able to process this data at lightning speed, and be able to react more quickly than humans, basing decisions on more data than a human driver could ever hope to have.
Eventually autonomous cars will be able to communicate with one another in real time, coordinating their actions in an emergency. This could mean predicting and avoiding an accident – even if it occurs many cars ahead. The future for safety in autonomous cars has a great deal of potential.
However, there are also interesting debates about the ethics of autonomous vehicle technology. These include debates about what an autonomous vehicle might do in a situation where the car needs to choose between two bad options – like hitting a pedestrian or another vehicle – where both options could result in tragedy.
One thing we can expect is a gap in the perception of safety. Older drivers will probably be more suspicious of the technology than younger drivers. This has been the case with every new technology throughout history, so we should expect it with autonomous cars as well. Newer drivers are more likely to embrace new technology and accept it as normal. Once this perspective is fully adopted, car designs could be changed more dramatically. We have already seen concept cars with inward facing seats, where people could connect or catch up on work while driving. In this environment, EVE for Tesla shows us how connected, autonomous cars could allow us to re-capture lost time in our vehicles, by making the vehicle as connected as your home computer – and more.
It certainly sounds like a lot of changes. How long will it take before all this happens?
In some ways, the future is already here, as advanced autonomous technology is already appearing in today’s cars. And Tesla will have fully autonomous technology available next year… or maybe the following, by the time it gets through regulators.
But generally it’s going to be a gradual process spanning decades. As late as the 1940s it wouldn’t have been unusual to see horse-drawn wagon on city streets, and car-only suburbs hadn’t been invented yet. It took a very long time for society to really adapt to cars. So while some very aggressive forecasts think the autonomous future is only a decade away, that future may include mixed technology co-existing for some time.
Today’s car buyers, though, are already seeing the benefits of autonomous technology, and more and more people are expected to get on board. I have a four-year-old son who loves cars, but by the time he turns sixteen there’s a good chance he won’t get a driver’s license — not because he won’t be allowed, but because he might not need it.
The future of driving is going to be very different from what we’re used to, thanks to the adoption of self-driving cars. And the impacts will likely extend far beyond roads and parking alone. So hang on tight – ‘cuz it’s going to be quite a ride!
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