Waymo, Ford, BMW, Volkswagen Group. These, among some others, are currently the companies that are more likely to be the first to have their driving cars circulating on the road. In fact, self-driving vehicle have become a focal point for many companies in the automobile industry. Why so?
Self-driving cars can be defined as motor vehicles that are capable of driving and navigating in an autonomous way without any input of a human being. Until now, the system that will allow this has not been yet developed as fully autonomous. However, advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) have been playing a crucial role in preparing regulators, consumers, and corporations for the medium-term reality of cars taking over control from drivers. There has been a great improvement in the last years, but there is a long way to go for fully autonomous vehicles to be available in the market.
The potential of self-driving cars
The main potential of self-driving cars could be summarised as efficient usage of resources, safety and traffic congestion.
Sharing self-driving cars is one of the most efficient ways to decrease the amount of space required for parking, as well as the resources used to build the vehicles. Today, an average car in the US is being unused 22 hours a day. This waste of materials used to produce the almost 270 million cars in the country could be greatly decreased with the introduction of self-driving cars. How? Companies are looking towards the creation of an automated vehicle that will be used as a transport service. The same case as Uber has expanded our concept of a sharing economy, where we do not own the car but we share the service, self-driving vehicles could be used in the same way. This could result in a decrease of an unnecessary manufacturing of cars. Sharing vehicles is the most promising approach for a sustainable environment.
Concerning the safety issues, self-driving cars offer a great potential. Many of today’s car accidents are due to human error (e.g. driving under the effects of drugs, or lack of attention because of tiredness and usage of smartphones). Since self-driving vehicles could be connected and communicate among themselves, research estimates that around 80% of vehicle crashes could be avoided. This centralized routing system could also reduce delays for all drivers by minimising common bottlenecks causing slow traffic and thus increase the capacity of freeways.
Autonomous vehicles could entirely change our perception of transportation. This, however, does not come with possible challenges and problems.
First of all, we must consider the technological aspect of these new automobiles. Development of the required software is an issue that companies have been working on for several years, and still requires a lot of improvement. Self-driving cars must be able to act and drive like a human, and therefore mimic (and to some extent, improve) the process of human decision making. The problem? While humans are continuously learning from their mistakes and past decisions, automated vehicles may be constrained to their slower capacity to assimilate the consequences of their decisions. It must be also considered that research in this field has been based on representations of a real world situation, so to which extent can we rely on decisions that are taken from an unreal situation?
Concerning the possible social challenges and the acceptance of society, safety is the imperative when it comes to self-driving. In theory, this new technology should be able to overcome the errors in human decision-making, therefore decreasing the accident rates and improving safety on the road; but how should these cars be tested? When it comes to the vehicles we use today, a number of different standards assure the safety in the roads by implementing a set of mandatory rules. However, in the case of automated vehicles, the standards are still under development and based on unreal experiences. Therefore, until the learning-from-experience mechanism in self-driving cars is not improved, complete safety won’t be assured. In refutation of this argument, over-reliance must be discussed. The concept is nothing new; in the 90’s, when airbags have been developed some drivers and passengers felt confident enough to stop wearing their seatbelts, thinking they were not necessary anymore. This illusion of over-protection resulted in increased deaths and injuries.
Finally, let’s relate to the economic aspect. A mass usage of this type of vehicles would have a great impact on several job markets: taxi drivers, truckers, chauffeurs, etc. These industries would have to be reallocated, ending with an important part of the tertiary economic sector. Furthermore, an industry that would bear the consequences would also be the one consisting of insurance companies. Since the rate of accidents is expected to decrease drastically with the implementation of automated vehicles, these companies would have to adapt to the new situation.
Sharing the vehicles would also result in an important impact on the economy and the business’ strategies. Companies would need to find new ways to achieve competitive advantage in the market. The automotive industry has a highly competitive market, but since the driving would not be experienced by the person inside the car anymore, firms should focus more deeply in the interior of the vehicle and its design.
Considering that in the US alone more than 6.3 billion hours are being wasted on average per year in traffic jams, more than 37000 people die every year in car crashes, automobiles are being unused most of the time, self-driving cars could signify an important revolution. Nevertheless, the previously mentioned challenges show that there is still much work ahead until we can sit comfortably in our cars and let the machines transport us safely and effectively to our destinations.