It is not hard to imagine a future in which every vehicle on the road is a driverless car. Google has been fighting to pioneer autonomous vehicles for years, combating naysayers on a municipal and federal level.Their battle to innovate the way we live may yet end in victory for them—their latest prototypes will be test-driving on the roads of Mountain View, CA by the summer of 2016. Other companies are determined to keep up—it’s very well likely that we’ll be seeing a wave of driverless vehicles being offered to consumers on a widespread scale in 2020. Is that a good thing?
Many people believe that roads full of driverless cars could be the answer to solving the safety concerns on America's highways. There are roughly 33,000 motor vehicle deaths each year, and human error is believed to be responsible for 90% of them. A vehicle operated by a robot would not be vulnerable to making the same errors humans routinely make on the road. A robot would not be distracted by a cell phone. Nor would it suffer from road rage or operate under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Computers would also not be as susceptible to misjudging distances, instead relying on objective sensors. A lot of these common causes of accidents would cease to exist with autonomous vehicles.
Small changes have already been made to cutting-edge vehicles. The newest safety features include autonomous emergency braking (AEB), which causes the vehicle to slow down automatically when approaching an obstacle. Adaptive cruise control automatically adjusts the car’s cruising speed by measuring the distance between the vehicle and the car in front of it. There are even systems that automatically adjust steering in certain situations, such as when the driver attempts an unsafe lane change. This last feature, if perfected, would eliminate collisions that result from a driver not checking his or her blindspot. AEB use has already been shown to cut collision rates by 14 percent.
Autonomous Research, a company committed to researching the potential effects of driverless cars, released a report in the UK earlier this year. They believe that car insurance premiums will drop by 63 percent as a result of autonomous vehicles. The primary reasoning provided for this figure is that collision rates will drop dramatically as a result of driverless cars—a figure supported by the drops in motor collision rates already caused by semi-autonomous safety features.
Their findings are based on the current costs incurred by human error:
- 9% of motorists file insurance claims annually
- 30% of claims are from rear-end accidents
- Nearly 25% are caused by parking and reversing accidents
- The average annual policy cost in the US is $907
- Projected policy costs in a driverless era: $335
For most 6-month policies, that would drop the monthly payment from around $100 to $37 a month.
How the Nation Responds to Changes in Auto Safety
While some people may be skeptical about robots operating their vehicle, national attitudes regarding automobile safety have changed before. In the 1960s, a young Ralph Nader brought auto safety to the national spotlight with his book, "Unsafe at Any Speed." One of the primary focuses of the book was automakers' resistance to introduce seat belts in all new vehicles. It's hard to believe now, but at that time, most Americans could not be persuaded to wear seat belts. It wasn't until Nader's book and subsequent laws requiring passengers to buckle up did seatbelt use become the norm.
After seat belts, the conversation switched to airbags. Again, car manufacturers were hesitant to install them in new vehicles because it would make them more expensive to produce. Once the industry finally caved in the 1990s, the use of airbags was still not universally accepted. Many motorists feared their use, noting that they were causing severe injuries and even death to children. The original airbags were designed with 165 pound adults in mind. Over the years, problems were corrected and now airbags are a standard safety feature in every new car on the market.
The UK report mentioned earlier notes that safety features often take 15 years to become standard in 95% of new car sales. Historically, it takes 30 years for a safety feature to become part of 95% of all cars on the road. While early adopters will accept autonomous features now, we may not see full acceptance until 2046.
However, there’s a key difference between airbags / seatbelts and autonomous safety features: the former prevents injuries after an accident. The latter prevents the collision from occurring at all. Customers who experience the advantages of driverless features also have the ability to be more vocal than in previous decades. Lastly, the American public has adopted new technologies at an astounding rate recently—we may see change sooner than we think.
However, even if public opinion shifts, autonomous cars would not be without safety risks of their own. After all, if cars are simply giant moving computers, they could theoretically be hacked just as any laptop or desktop computer can be. Imagine someone hacking into your vehicle while it is en route, tampering with the braking system or the steering. Additionally, malfunctions or "freezes"—even momentarily—could lead to fatal accidents. Robot-driven cars may solve the safety problem of human error, but new solutions may bring with it whole new challenges. Both the law and technology will need to work together to keep passengers as safe as possible in changing times.