Autonomous cars (or self-driving cars) are an exciting technology domain that has emerged over the past couple of years. While industry and academia have technically been working on it for over a decade, it hasn’t been until recently that reality has caught up to the promises being made. Consumer access to the technology is being accelerated forward primarily thanks to Tesla and their auto-pilot capabilities. They were first to introduce lane keeping, combined with other existing capabilities like adaptive cruise control, that allowed their cars to “drive” without constant human input. Then we also have Uber and the ride-sharing economy pushing for a future where most people won’t need to own a car, you simply hail one, just as easily as you do today for a taxi or Uber. We are still years away from fully autonomous cars that can bring passengers from any arbitrary point to another arbitrary point with little to no human input. There are obvious benefits to this technology that have been presented and discussed, but I wanted to write a bit about the less obvious benefits that we will see in the coming future.
Emergency vehicles and emergency responders will benefit from autonomous cars thanks to improved routing and navigation. In addition to those aspects, emergency vehicles may be able to reach their destinations faster than traditional ones, due to vehicle-2-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-2-infrastructure (V2I) capabilities that could allow other cars to automatically pull over, giving the emergency vehicles a clear and expected path. Today, emergency vehicles must travel slowly through congested roads, waiting for regular vehicles to pull over or otherwise get out of the way. If most, or all, of the cars on the road are autonomous, this could be done in an optimal way, allowing the emergency vehicle to pass at faster speeds and greater efficiency. At the end of the day, this could mean the extra few minutes required to save more lives.
Autonomous cars will provide a great deal of independence for those who are unable to transport themselves. This of course includes the elderly and disabled, but also includes other people, like women who may be pregnant with a somewhat unpredictable need to head to a hospital. It can also include younger individuals who are not yet-of-age to drive. And what about individuals who have temporary impairments, such as anyone who has ever gone to have surgery using general anesthesia? (You are not permitted to drive yourself home after such a surgery.) Autonomous cars will fill a need in all of these situations, and will do so with vast improvements over today’s existing options.
Fewer dangerous drivers on the road
With an autonomous car, there is no opportunity for a driver to be driving while under the influence (DUI). There is no opportunity for a sleep-deprived person falling asleep behind the wheel. Texting while driving? No longer an issue. And if we go as far as mandating the use of autonomous cars, then there won’t be unlicensed or otherwise irresponsible drivers, ever.
People can go out and drink freely with autonomous cars on the road, not having to worry about driving drunk. Society can rest easier knowing that fewer drunk drivers will be on the road. And generally speaking, autonomous cars are just plain safer than human drivers. They employ dozens of sensors, and different types of sensors, that are always on, always watching, never fatigued or tired, and can react to dangerous situations in milliseconds. Sensors and computers don’t get distracted, you won’t have to worry about a driver texting and driving, ever again.
Could increase the recreational car business
Many people whom I’ve talked with about autonomous cars react with a sense of indignation that they would have their car taken away from them. They love to drive! I can usually present a thousand situations that challenge that notion (sitting in traffic, getting into accidents, etc.) but ultimately, if there is still a large passion for driving, we could see this as a business opportunity. We already have public race tracks, but they are few and far between. This is because most people are content owning their own car, even if it’s not a Formula 1 car. But, if we migrate to a future were most people don’t own their own cars, there could be an opportunity here to open up recreational car driving as a sort of sport open to the public. Think about how we have Go-Carts and those handful of public race tracks… now expand them to include large courses that people can drive, all sorts of different cars (not everyone wants to drive a race car), and so on.
Public transit revolution
Today, many cities and metropolitan areas rely on intensive networks of subways, light-rail, buses and other mass transit systems in order to satisfy the need for public transit. But these solutions are dated, and as cities grow, they become stressed by growing populations that they weren’t initially designed to handle. They are costly to repair, costly to replace, and even more costly to upgrade. Autonomous cars offer a new take on public transit. Instead of individuals owning cars, why not have the public transit authority own autonomous cars that people simply “rent” or “hire” for the time they need them? Instead of having a couple dozen trains running on fixed tracks, imagine having something like Uber backed by tens of thousands of autonomous cars in every city. Public transit would become more flexible, limited only by the roads. It would also become more convenient, responding to passenger requests, instead of running at fixed intervals.
Getting your time back
I don’t know about you, but I for one don’t particularly like driving, especially monotonous routes like a commute to work every day. Autonomous cars offer us the ability to regain some of our time that is being lost to the act of driving. When you consider that a “perfect” autonomous car (i.e. fully autonomous, safer than a human driver, reliable, etc.) changes the requirements for what a car looks like, it becomes really exciting what can happen.
Take the NIO EVE concept autonomous car:
This is just one idea for completely changing how people interact with their cars and what they can do when riding inside of them. Beyond the futuristic style is a functional change to the cabin that provides a living space for passengers to rest, relax, get work done, etc.
If this becomes a reality, maybe I won’t dread the 6+ hour drive to go see my mother so much, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll go see her more often!
Increased population density
Cheaper and faster long distance travel
Imagine being in a small van sized autonomous vehicle, that is traveling along something similar to today’s interstate roadway, but only filled with other autonomous vehicles. Your vehicle, along with others, can travel at speeds in excess of 120 mph. They could probably go faster even, it all really depends on how passengers feel given the various physical forces they will experience as they move faster and faster. But even at a conservatively low 120 mph, that essentially cuts every road trip you’ve done to half the time. Or, it could mean that you now have the patients to tolerate road trips that are twice as long! But you know what? If I didn’t have to drive (and thus lock my attention on a very monotonous task) because the car could do it autonomously, I’d be willing to go just about anywhere. The time it takes to get there is much less of a factor in general thanks to autonomous vehicles!
Our future includes autonomous cars, this is no doubt. It’s not a matter of if, but when. I’m excited for all the ways life will change once autonomous cars reach maturity and become wide spread. From the obvious benefits of general safety improvement and increased mobility, to the less obvious benefits, this will usher in a revolution for transportation.
About Me & This Topic
Alex has worked on human-machine interface and data management components related to autonomous cars, and has had a long interest in autonomy and vehicle/robot intelligence.