Will Driverless Cars Help Empty America’s Roads?

Google Car photo by Sam Churchill. License: CC BY 2.0.

As a vast, spread-out country, it would have been impossible for America to grow into what it is today without the invention of the automobile.

With their own cars, urban-dwelling Americans were now able to head to the rural countryside on the weekends without having to bend their scheduled to accommodate public transportation. Similarly, folks in the more rural areas of the country could head into the city to get supplies whenever they wanted.

Now, 100 years later, America’s roads (like many of its citizen’s arteries) are clogged. Believe it or not, there are over 253 million vehicles on the country’s roads. And on average, these vehicles are more than 10 years old.

Ask anyone who lives in places like Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago, and they’ll tell you the same thing: Traffic can be absolutely horrendous most days—almost as if there are simply too many vehicles on roadways.

The promise of the autonomous automobile

In today’s connected world, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that car manufacturers are integrating the latest gadgets and technologies into automobiles so that they too can leverage the power of the Internet. These connected cars are already providing drivers with many benefits. But as technology evolves even further, what we’re seeing on the market today might just be the beginning.

Many companies are already looking toward the future, and what they see is pretty amazing: cars that drive themselves. Companies like Google, Audi, Nissan, Tesla, and even (if the rumors are true) Apple have all dipped their toes into the waters of autonomous vehicles to one extent or another.

While industry experts say we’re probably about 10 years away from seeing truly autonomous automobiles, that doesn’t mean we can’t start thinking about them right now. If they work as designed, drivers should be poised to enjoy the following benefits:

Increased safety

According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel, 37,000 Americans die on the roads each year, with an additional 2.25 million getting injured or disabled as a result of crashes. In 2010, roughly 3,092 of these fatalities were a direct result of distracted driving.

Driverless cars, which will likely feature GPS systems, digital sensors, and other kinds of motion sensors, will be able to detect tons of variables that the human eye would never be able to. These cars would essentially eliminate any and all “blind spots,” helping drastically reduce the number of accidents on the road each year.

Less traffic

When humans are removed from the equation, Idiot Driver A and Idiot Driver B are eliminated as well. This subtraction helps ensure that an after-work road rage confrontation doesn’t break out following a fender-bender during rush hour.

Accidents will likely still happen, although on a much more reduced scale. When that happens, a computer can alert your car of the upcoming obstructions and automatically reroute you. You’ll get to where you’re headed with far fewer hiccups.

Lower fuel, insurance, and maintenance costs

Because autonomous cars remove human error from the equation, drivers can expect to get the maximum return on their fuel expenses, which will be burned as optimally as possible, stretching the distance a full tank of gas can take you. Additionally, you won’t have to worry about tune-ups and other kinds of preventative maintenance as much; your car will drive perfectly, resulting in less wear and tear.

Insurance companies will likely be the first people to tell us that autonomous cars are safer than those driven by humans. Once that happens, it will probably cost a lot less to insure an autonomous car than one susceptible to human-error-related accidents. (Morgan Stanley projects that, in the aggregate, these kinds of cars will save $1.3 trillion.)

Improved comfort

Driverless cars won’t need captain seats that face forward. They also won’t need clutches, gas and brake pedals and steering wheels. The absence of these kinds of features will transform the inner design of the car, making it considerably more comfortable.

In this sense, autonomous cars can almost be thought of as train cars of sorts. Simply board the transportation vehicle, get situated, and begin scanning the morning paper – along with your neighbor. There’s a good chance fewer cars will be needed as people embrace the sharing economy – a win for the environment, too.

More options

Gone are the days of commuting behind the wheel and being able to get absolutely nothing done. Driverless cars will give workers the ability to tackle tasks on their drives to and from work. You could almost picture an autonomous car as an office on wheels.

It’s worth noting, of course, that driverless cars aren’t without their disadvantages. For example, because they will be connected to the Internet, who’s to say driverless cars couldn’t be hacked? (In fact, some suggest that Michael Hastings, a journalist who died in a 2013 car accident, was the victim of cyber terrorism.)

And beyond that, truckers, taxi drivers and other professional delivery agents may very well find themselves out of work as autonomous cars become a reality.

Still, driverless cars are coming. And while they might not completely make hands-on-steering wheel driving a complete thing of the past – some people actually like to drive, while others might be wary to leave their lives in the hands of computers – they will almost certainly transform our daily lives. And that will certainly be exciting to watch unfold.

Google Car photo by Sam Churchill. License: CC BY 2.0.

Daniel Faris studied writing and business at Susquehanna University, and now writes for the London School of Economics and Political Science. In his free time he blogs about technology, politics, and progressive music.

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