As with all new disruptive technologies, there are winners and losers, benefits and costs. While a case can be made that the overall benefits of driverless vehicles to society outweigh the costs, this article does not endeavor to do that. Instead it looks at how people, both individually and collectively, will benefit from this technology. This article does not consider the benefit of this technology from a commercial perspective. That isn’t to say there are no commercial benefits. There are many. But the story is more complicated and warrants a more focused look.
People (as individuals)
We’ll begin with the average citizen. Perhaps the greatest benefit of the driverless is that it promises to dramatically reduce traffic accidents. This is one of the central arguments made by Google and Tesla for pursuing the technology. Chris Urmson, the former head of Google’s driverless car program, noted in a TED talk (below) that 33,000 Americans die on our roads every year. 94% percent of those accidents are attributed to human error. Computers, on the other hand, don’t drink-and-drive, they aren’t distracted by smartphones and they don’t get tired. They can survey 360 degrees simultaneously and they can react virtually instantaneously in the case of emergencies. The existing technology may still struggle where humans have evolved to thrive, but the early evidence seems to support the safety superiority of the driverless car. A report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that Tesla’s Autopilot technology has reduced crash rates by almost 40%.
Another benefit is accessibility. Cars are the most prevalent mode of transportation in the United States and vast swaths of land can only be navigated with the benefit of a car. And yet, people without a driver’s licence, including our youth, people with certain disabilities (e.g. blindness), and some seniors, don’t have the luxury of driving. Our transportation system as it currently functions, cripples their mobility, especially where public transit isn’t convenient or available. Driverless cars will help solve that problem. If no person is driving the vehicle no license will be needed. It promises to dramatically improve mobility for millions in America alone.
A potentially surprising benefit of driverless car technology is the reduced cost of driving. Why would a car cost less when it is being outfitted with technology that can cost upwards of $100,000? The argument for driverless cars costing less than manually driven cars is the subject of a separate article, but there are significant reasons to think shared autonomous vehicles will be significantly cheaper to operate than the average vehicle on the road today. I’ll also note that Tesla has announced it will be including the hardware necessary for full autonomy on its $35,000 dollar Model III.
The final key benefit to the individual is time. In America, we spend an average of 25 minutes traveling to work and another 25 minutes traveling home. That’s nearly an hour every day consumed behind the wheel of a car. Taken over the course of a year, that is the equivalent of 9 straight days of driving with no sleep. However, if our car is doing the driving for us, we get that time back. We can spend it working, reading, sleeping, or any number of other activities that can’t safely be done while operating a vehicle.
People (as a society)
There are also substantial societal benefits to this technology. Safety, again, is a huge benefit collectively. Traffic accidents are a huge burden on our service sector, our economy and emergency response systems.
Beyond safety, driverless cars will also enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of existing transportation. This is accomplished because driverless cars will be, on average, much smaller than today’s vehicles (think narrower lanes); they don’t need the clearances that human operated vehicles do (forget about the 2 second rule, think the 2 yard rule even at high speeds); traffic signals and signage may largely become obsolete. As a result of these benefits, highway capacity may quadruple. Intersection capacity may double. Not only will we not need to build expensive new infrastructure, we can afford to remove existing infrastructure. This could solve the congestion problem and the transportation funding problems in one fell swoop.
There are also environmental benefits of this technology. Most notably, autonomous vehicles are naturally compatible with electric vehicles (in fact most of the leaders in AV technology are piloting their tech on electric vehicles) and electric vehicles produce none of the emissions that contribute to climate change. The continued transition to a power grid supplied by renewable energy sources will also reduce the indirect emissions caused by manufacturing electric vehicles.
In sum, driverless cars promise great benefits to us individually and collectively. They’ll make us safer and improve our commutes, while making them cheaper. They’ll improve the efficiency of our infrastructure, which will reduce congestion and the scale of infrastructure needed to meet our transportation needs. And they’ll reduce the environmental costs of driving.