How Self-Driving Cars Will Impact Society


autonomous vehicle

Picture a world where self-driving cars—or autonomous vehicles—are the norm. The car, not its human occupant, is in full control. Using its various sensors, radars, cameras and GPS devices, it seamlessly navigates from Point A to Point B, communicating with other vehicles and a high-tech roadway infrastructure to get you to your destination safely. This autonomous-only future on the roads would maintain an optimal traffic flow and get you and your fellow riders there as efficiently as possible.

This world may come sooner than you think, as many major auto industry manufacturers, along with a handful of other technology companies, have self-driving cars that are very far along in development. Some, in fact, have already been operating pilot versions on the streets around you.

Of course, we likely are still decades away from fully-automated vehicles dominating the roads. But as vehicles progress from fully driver-controlled to primarily computer-assisted to completely driverless, society as we know it is in for some changes.

The Big One: Self-Driving Safety

Well over a million people die in road crashes globally each year, with vehicle accidents accounting for more than 3,000 deaths a day, according to the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT). Tens of millions more people are injured or disabled. In the U.S. alone, more than 37,000 people die in road crashes annually, with another 2.35 million injured or disabled.

There are many causes of road accidents, with an overwhelming majority due to user error. This includes reckless driving, speeding, drunk driving, texting while driving and driver fatigue, among many other causes.

Think about it: an autonomous vehicle can’t drink. It can’t get road rage. It can’t get sleepy and it can be programmed to never speed. While it may seem far-fetched to some, before long, humans may be deemed too dangerous to drive at all.

A Ripple Effect

Ultimately, if self-driving vehicles create a safer transportation environment, a majority of the now-common vehicle-related deaths and injuries can be avoided. This would affect everything from the healthcare industry to public safety services. Emergency personnel, police and other resources would be freed up to respond to other incidents.

Self-driving cars could also impact the auto insurance industry in a major way. They are expected to reduce the frequency of vehicle accidents drastically, which would similarly reduce the necessity of car insurance for personal vehicles. Additionally, if cars are no longer controlled by humans, then the bulk of the liability incurred by the person using the vehicle would be reduced. Of course, there will still be a need for insurance, but the model for how insurance works will undergo a major overhaul. Would it shift to the manufacturers and providers of the autonomous vehicle? And if so, will the end user will likely still end up paying for it through the cost of the vehicle itself?

Another thing to consider is that self-driving cars are expected to lower personal ownership of vehicles, as they may be shared by multiple members of a group or rented through a service on-demand. This may further complicate whom picks up the tab in terms of insurance liability.

Change in Judgment

One safety concern that has many still skeptical, however, is the lack of “human judgment” in certain situations. Say a person or object is out on the road where it shouldn’t be. This would require a decision from the vehicle’s artificial intelligence. Does it go left, right or hit the brakes (or do nothing at all)? Can you trust a computer to make the right split-second decision? It can be a scary thought. And it is one of the reasons some are skeptical about letting the car “take the wheel.”

With that said, more and more people are becoming open to the idea of self-driving vehicles as they begin to get a handle on how the technology works. There’s no doubt that manufacturers—as well as safety-focused agencies and associations—will be very focused on getting the message out over the next decade about the many upsides of autonomous vehicles.

Self-driving technology company Waymo developed out of a project that started with Google. This is its autonomous Chrysler Pacific in 2017. (credit: Dllu – Wikimedia Commons)

Self-Driving Benefits: Productivity and Relaxation

The average American spends about an hour each day driving, with the AAA Foundation estimating that number at over 48 minutes and the Harvard Health Watch at over 101 minutes. No matter the source, the fact remains—we spend a lot of time in our cars. Those of us who are extremely busy have written that time off as inevitable. But imagine if we could get that hour back? Instead of locked onto the road for that hour, what could you accomplish as a “passenger” that could add to your productivity? Multiply that times seven days, then by 52 weeks. Then by the couple-hundred million drivers in the U.S. That’s a lot of made up time in a year.

Maybe you just want to use that extra time to relax, or enjoy some form of entertainment. The point is, autonomous vehicles could be a big time-saver for everyone.

Commercial Delivery and Ridesharing Capabilities of Self-Driving Vehicles

There are several big industries in the U.S. that rely on human drivers. These are namely commercial trucking and ridesharing (such as Uber and taxi businesses). The emergence of self-driving vehicles in these industries will undoubtedly cause major disruptions, as human would no longer be needed for the driving part. There are more than 1.5 million truck drivers in the U.S. This is in addition to well over a million service drivers such as taxi drivers, Uber drivers and bus drivers.

As with many major world-changing technologies humans implemented since the Industrial Revolution, people must weigh the overall economic benefits with the near-term negative impact of replacing human labor with machines. But for society to advance and become increasingly efficient, this will always be the case. And these changes almost always spur development of brand new jobs, or the evolution of existing ones. Take the truck driver example. Perhaps a freight still requires someone to manage it in its journey and to help unload the trailer of goods.

ADAS… and Glass

While all of this may seem a bit far out, you may already be experiencing some of the systems that will ultimately lead to a fully autonomous car. Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (or ADAS for short) include features such as adaptive cruise control, automatic lane centering, automatic braking, blind spot warning, automatic parking and many more. Sensors, cameras, radars and other devices utilized in autonomous vehicles control these features. So while you may have your reservations about a car that is driving itself, your car may already be training you to feel comfortable relying on it for certain things. Hey, it’s a start, right?

On that note: if you have ADAS features in your vehicle, and you need to replace your windshield for whatever reason, your vehicle’s ADAS will likely need to be re-calibrated. This is important. While you may or may not realize it, your windshield could contain special sensors, cameras or other devices that are critical to your car’s ADAS functioning safely. And if that sensor is off even just a hair, it can cause your vehicle’s entire ADAS to be off. This re-calibration may be as simple as re-setting a computer. Or it could require more complicated laser-setting and measurement-taking.

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