Innovation

Autonomous Cars Can Reportedly Save 10 Million Lives A Decade, But How Safe Are They Really?

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Driverless cars are the future. Matthias Ripp CC BY 2.0

The possibility of autonomous vehicles (AVs) dominating the road within our lifetime is becoming an increasingly realistic possibility. Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk recently stated that the auto manufacturer’s electric cars would have a range of 745 miles and be fully autonomous by 2020. Uber has said that it expects to have a fully autonomous fleet of vehicles on the road by 2030. And major car manufacturers like Audi, Ford, Jaguar, and Nissan all believe that truly autonomous cars will be in showrooms within the next 10 years. They expect them to dominate the road within the next 20 to 30 years. Yet, with these driver-assisting or driver-less cars set to be released onto the road, there are plenty of safety concerns we’ll have to address before we cede control to the machines.

An Intro to Autonomous Cars

Experts say there will be five tiers for how AVs will be unveiled to the public, with tier one being driver assistance. This is essentially everything we have today, like lane departure warnings and parallel-parking assistance — with rearview cameras. While these cars help drivers in minimal ways, factors like emergency control and road monitoring still rely heavily on the driver.

Tier two involves partial automation. It allows the car to be more autonomous; however, humans are still in control. Some aspects of this tier include a wider range of driving aids, like automatic braking and highway cruise control monitoring.

Many people believe we’re somewhere between tier two and tier three, which is conditional automation. This means the driver is still ultimately responsible for what happens to the vehicle, but artificial intelligence will (AI) control driving the car on the highway while cruise control is engaged and monitoring road situations like sudden lane changes by other drivers.

Tier four, high automation, will give nearly all control of the vehicle to AI — driver input will be optional. A car in this tier would be able to stop completely on its own.

Finally, with tier five we’d relinquish total control to the AI. Drivers will be able to set a destination in a GPS, and the car will handle every other aspect of the trip. While it’s unclear when we’ll reach this tier, most experts agree the absolute earliest would be 2040.

What Will Autonomous Cars Be Like?

Once we reach tier five, driving will become a completely different experience than it is today. Gone will be the hour-long commutes and traffic jams. Drivers will be able to get work done, relax, or communicate with family members. Parking spaces and lots will shrink by billions of square feet, since AVs will be able to park themselves, or just dump their occupants off at their destination before returning home. Consulting firm McKinsey and Company predicts a 50-minute drop in travel time for drivers, as carpooling becomes a more viable option with autonomous cars.

Combined, these decreases in driving time and overall fatigue from long commutes, as well as a higher degree of carpooling, could lead people to live further away from their workplaces. The speed at which AVs would theoretically drive could also reduce the need for short flights, such as those from Boston to New York. Not only would this result in a reduction in air travel but also a reduction in traffic congestion.

The Safety of Autonomous Vehicles

As great as all of this sounds for AVs, safety is still a top concern for motorists.

The good news is AVs would save more than 10 million lives every decade by the time they become permanent fixtures on the road, McKinsey and Company predicted. Health care costs would also drop dramatically, as McKinsey also predicts AVs would reduce the number of road accidents by 90 percent. In all, this would save over $90 billion in health care alone. These predictions were supported by a recent investigation by Google that found humans were the cause of AV crashes, not the AIs.

So, how is the AV able to keep you from smashing into everything in sight? There are three systems that are supposed to work synchronously in most AVs: a conventional GPS system; a system that recognizes the conditions of the road, such as potholes, construction work, and other cars; and a third system that combines data from the previous two inform the car how and where to drive — all the while avoiding obstacles.  

AVs will also be great for the environment, or at least better than the current gasoline-driven cars we use. A recent study found that AVs will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 90 percent.

Why We’re Not Yet Ready For Autonomous Vehicles

As exciting as an autonomous future sounds, there are some drawbacks. First, we are still years away from fully autonomous roads. Even if AVs were on the roads today, there’d still be human-controlled cars too, risking safety. Then, once these roads become autonomous, it’ll be even longer before we see the country’s infrastructure change to accommodate the new cars on the road. Highways, stoplights, and even crosswalks will have to be updated constantly to stay in step with the ever-evolving AVs.

Perhaps most concerning, however, is that people will lose jobs. Uber’s fleet of AVs will replace the millions of drivers that the company currently employs. What’s more, McKinsey says places where vehicles operate in a controlled environment, like mines or farmlands, are already getting their human drivers replaced with robotic ones. Truck drivers will lose their jobs too, as the trucks become autonomous in order to prevent them from falling asleep behind the wheel.

Despite these issues, experts can agree that AVs will exist in the future. Though a world filled with people relaxing inside a car instead of raging against traffic is still a long way off, the road is paved with exciting technology that will hopefully make the world a better place to live and drive in. Now, all we need to do is let go of the wheel.

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