How Close are we to the Autonomous Car Revolution?

Self-driving cars are one of the impending technological advancements that consumers are the most excited about.  The idea that you could step into your car, punch in an address, and then divert your attention to something completely unrelated to driving while zooming to your destination is a very luxurious one, and it is one that is becoming more and more feasible every day.  Google, one of the pioneers in the field of driverless cars, has a fleet that has clocked almost a million miles with just one accident – which occurred when a car was rear-ended while under manual use, as noted in The Telegraph.  The company predicts that the product will be publicly available as soon as 2020, which is shockingly soon, all things considered.

Zack Kanter, a self-proclaimed futurist writing for CBS San Francisco, is one of the many extreme optimists regarding the topic of self-driving cars.  Citing the many benefits to be gained by taking drivers out of the equation, such as virtually eliminating traffic accidents, saving millions of hours of manpower, and the rise of newly viable businesses as driving forces, he made dramatic predictions about how driverless cars will reshape the economy.  Kanter believes that consumers will essentially abandon the car in favor of ride-sharing services like Uber, while said services make the transition from contracted drivers towards automatic cars.  He anticipates these changes will take effect as soon as 2025 – in just ten years time.  Is his prediction too bold?  Some might say no: it’s incredibly hard to predict how technology can reshape our lives.  Ten years ago people may have not believed you if you claimed that everybody would carry a personal computer-like device on them at all times, but smartphones made that a reality.  However, in the case of self-driving cars, I think Kanter and leading industry members like Elon Musk, who claims that fully-autonomous driving will be on the market by 2020, are being a bit too optimistic.

I certainly can’t see the average American giving up car ownership within the next ten years.  Consumers will see self-driving cars completely differently from how they currently view cars, since the product is fundamentally different.  While I think there will be some early adopters, like there was in the case of hybrid cars, it will take a while for people to get comfortable with the concept of giving up driving completely.  While it’s true that it’s often a chore, many people enjoy driving, and they certainly take pride in their cars.  And driverless cars will almost certainly be quite expensive when they first become available, creating an economic barrier to widespread adoption. There’s also the question of how driverless cars will be handled legally.  Even if there’s overwhelming evidence that they reduce accidents, there’s still the question of how liability will be determined in accidents when they do occur, especially while manually driven cars are still on the roads, and that’s an issue that may take years for precedent to develop.  Traffic laws may need to be re-evaluated: would we still need stoplights if there are fewer cars on the road, and they’re being automatically driven?  What about road signage or stop signs?  Will parking lots and traffic tickets become a thing of the past, and if so, how are municipalities going to deal with the loss of revenue?  The technology is an exciting one, but there are still plenty of questions that need to be answered before it can become the status quo.

7 thoughts on “How Close are we to the Autonomous Car Revolution?

  1. Israel Diego

    I think this sounds exciting. Mainly from the standpoint that if you don’t have to do the driving, then you have time to be productive on other things than spending time paying attention to the rode. Now texting and driving would be ok.

    1. luctommo@umich.edu'Lucas Morrison Post author

      I don’t necessarily think there are many negative effects to the technology. In the future that Zack Kanter predicts, there would be far fewer cars on the road, which means far fewer sales for automakers and gas companies. But I think that’s a scenario that isn’t likely in the near future, so I don’t think those negative aspects will manifest for a long time, if ever. I think the benefits that I cite far outweigh any negative effects on the economy, I just don’t believe that everybody will own an automatic car until a few decades later than anticipated by some.

  2. Paul Irwin

    You make an interesting point on liability issues. Sure studies have been done and Google has proved autonomous cars are safer, but if there is a manual driver fault accident, what happens? I think we will see slow adoptions into autonomous cars such as small features at a time.

  3. Jordan Anderson

    I really like the liability issues that you brought. Michigan has no-fault insurance but in many states that is not the case. The precedent that develops in the case of an accident between an automated car and an human driven car will be interesting to watch. I think younger generations that grow up with self driving cars will be much less resistant to the change, that is all they know, although many current age groups do love driving.

  4. vedaboy@umich.edu'Boykin

    I like your post. I think driverless cars are one of the most exciting technologies in development right now. A mini-city is actually being designed on U-M’s North Campus to test connected automated cars. Like you, I think the transition to automated cars will be less disruptive than the futurist predicts with people who drive least adopting the technology first.

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