C’mon Self-Driving Cars!

Feb/Mar 2014

Last summer, I commuted through the heart of Los Angeles traffic several days a week to work with a client in the city’s extremely dense “west side.” Based on this experience, when it comes to self-driving cars … I can’t wait. Day after day, just when I thought I’d seen the worst driving ever, one of LA’s goofballs would pull a stupid move that startled the other drivers around them, causing a ripple effect that grew into a traffic jam.

Through a process called “shockwave propagation,” drivers making stupid moves create a slow down behind them as more and more drivers stop when they see brake lights ahead. This creates unnecessary congestion, fosters fender-benders, and fuels driver misery. “Shockwave propagation” is one of many ways humans create our own lengthy commutes.

Prevent 50% of Accidents
Traffic accidents and associated congestion are another big factor autonomous cars should significantly reduce. According to an October 2013 report from the Eno Center for Transportation, 93% of car accidents are caused by human error. Of those accidents, 40% are due to driver impairment, including drinking, drugs, distraction, and fatigue. Just more than 50% are due to driver error, road and weather conditions, and sudden occurrences such as a tree falling on the road or a pedestrian stepping into the street.

Autonomous cars may not help with impairment issues right away. So far, all state autonomous vehicle licensing laws require the “driver” to be able to assume manual operation of the vehicle. Impairment would be just as illegal in an autonomous car as a regular car, under these regulations.

Autonomous cars should help with the other 50% of accidents. Their sensors, processors, active control systems, and V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) or V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) communications should pretty much eliminate accidents caused by speeding, drifting between lanes, not yielding right-of-way, and plain old inexperience. The cars should also handle challenging road situations such as rain, snow, and ice better than a normal driver due to responsive systems built into the vehicle. New cars already feature many of these systems, such as adaptive cruise control, lane-exit alarms, blind-spot sensors, automatic braking, and self-parking.

Premiums Plummet
Reducing accidents improves more than just road conditions. Car insurance premiums are expected to plummet with fewer accidents to cover. A November 2013 study from carinsurance. com shows 90% of surveyed drivers would consider switching to an autonomous car if it would lower their insurance premiums.

The survey also found 20% of drivers are ready to switch as soon as autonomous vehicles considered “safe” were available.

This forecast assumes autonomous vehicle owners would be financially responsible for the inevitably unavoidable accidents, an assumption that’s not completely certain. How liability will be allocated between vehicle owners and manufacturers is yet to be settled. California’s current autonomous vehicle licensing law requires onboard storage of sensor data from the last 30 seconds before a crash in order to assess fault.

Social Benefits
Widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles may reduce the environmental impact of driving cars by lowering the number of cars on the road, and car ownership overall. Car sharing is expected to rise significantly as drivers weigh the cost and convenience of on-demand transportation options versus the cost to maintain a private vehicle. The Eno report points out even in Seattle, where vehicle usage is more intense than the national average, only 11% of vehicles are “in use” throughout the day, including rush hour. Many of these vehicles could be replaced by on-demand or shared-car options.

Autonomous cars may also bring newfound mobility to children, the handicapped, and the elderly, assuming “take control” requirements are eventually eased. Improved senior mobility may become critical with the population older than 65 growing 50% faster than the general population. Improved mobility for the handicapped would expand employment opportunities and make it easier for these individuals to “mainstream” into society.

The enterprise will also benefit from autonomous vehicles, with shipping and transportation services particularly ripe for disruption as short-haul and long-haul trucking goes driverless.

Automated Cars This Decade?
With Google’s autonomous cars already logging more than half a million miles on California roads, self-driving cars aren’t as far away as you might think. Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Ford, GM, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Telsa, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo have all announced plans for driverless cars. While a few of these companies have announced dates before 2020, most are shooting for 2020 or beyond to release of their autonomous models. Widespread adoption may take another decade, though Eno’s research shows as few as 10% of autonomous cars on the road can begin to generate sizeable savings for the communities in which they operate.

Laurie Lamberth has been writing for Connected World magazine since May 2008. She also helps growing companies develop the strategies and partnerships they need to keep their business plan in high gear. Learn about Laurie’s strategic marketing, strategy, and business development practice at laurielamberth.com

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