All of these are interesting and serious questions that we'll be addressing in future posts. But for now, let's talk about all the good reasons why you might want a self-driving car someday. The chart above sums it up for you, describing how certain advantages of driverless cars help individual consumers more than society as a whole, and vice versa.
The further right you go on the X-axis, the more a particular stated benefit of driverless cars ("mobility") helps you personally. The higher up you go on the Y-axis, the more the benefit aids society ("energy consumption"). Framing the technology this way is important, because it speaks to a basic calculation that every consumer makes when buying a car: How is this purchase going to benefit me? If the perception is that driverless cars hold few tangible benefits for the individual, then they may have trouble getting adopted as consumers opt for cheaper conventional cars. But if consumers believe the benefits are worth it — even if they're rather abstract — then driverless cars may completely change the face of our economy.
The chart was produced by James Anderson, a behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation. Anderson argues that energy-efficient driverless cars will disproportionately benefit society over the traditional gas guzzlers we pilot by hand today. And those benefits begin with the individual consumer.
Mobility is really just a fancy word for transportation, referring to the way humans get around. We've already seen tremendous changes in mobility with the rise of ride-sharing companies like Uber. And as ride-sharing goes driverless, too, it's possible to imagine an entire intelligent transportation infrastructure whose services you can summon on the fly and pay to use only while you're in the vehicle. We'll have to balance the convenience factor of this technology with many of its social costs — lost jobs, a bias toward urban Americans — but technologists say it also stands to make us more productive with the time we currently spend behind the wheel.
Millions of car accidents occur every year because of human error. Driverless cars, federal studies show, could help reduce the rate of traffic crashes by as much as 80 percent. High-end cars today, such as Tesla's Model S, already come with sophisticated sensors and lane-keeping technologies that help keep drivers from veering into oncoming traffic or rear-ending the car ahead. Expect fully autonomous vehicles to expand on those; Google claims that its driverless car can visually identify pedestrians and cyclists and predict what they're going to do, albeit with some amusing exceptions. And when we get around to embedding high-tech computers in our roads and traffic lights, cars will be communicating with one another constantly, further reducing the risk of unintended fender-benders. We'll virtually do away with speeding, red-light running and other unsafe behaviors.
You know those phantom traffic jams where everything just slows down for no apparent reason? Driverless cars would cut down on these by allowing vehicles to drive more consistently. Whereas human drivers sometimes slam on the brakes due to inattentiveness or following the car ahead too closely, robot cars will use their sensors and radios to maintain a safe distance at all times. And because each car will know what the others are doing, they can afford to travel closer together, enhancing the efficiency of our roads.
Traveling at a more consistent speed, and adhering to speed limits, can mean getting better gas mileage; every time you accelerate and decelerate from your cruising speed, you're wasting gas and driving down your fuel economy. So driverless cars will grant us some savings there, not to mention a reduced reliance on oil and more money in your wallet.
All those energy efficiencies stand to be increased if we start driving electric driverless cars rather than gasoline-powered ones. A whole vehicle fleet powered on electricity alone would dramatically reduce the amount of carbon pollution we emit, potentially reducing our automotive emissions by 90 percent, California scientists say. The danger here is that drivers may be tempted to drive more if they think they're being economical with their fuel and with the environment. Still, most of us are creatures of habit; we tend to go to the same few places by car week in and week out. An optimist would argue that people's driving time may not increase all that much. But that's something that still needs to be proven.
Changes to the way we travel may wind up reshaping the face of our cities. In the same way that the automobile of the mid-20th century gave rise to suburbs, the car of the 21st century may cause us to rethink our own established design habits. Driverless vehicles could allow us to eliminate large, urban parking garages or encourage us to build more densely in order to increase the efficiency of our constantly roving driverless Ubers. We might build our future highways differently, or design our community spaces to be more pedestrian-friendly. All of these things might help draw people together and provide opportunities for social contact and the sharing of ideas, or perhaps the reclamation of some spaces by nature.
For years, Americans have bought cars because it meant the freedom to roam. There was an intense, direct utility that people derived from car ownership primarily stemming from being able to get from point A to point B, all by yourself. But driverless cars offer even more than that freedom; many of the benefits of vehicle automation could actually help society solve some of its most entrenched problems. These cars align our incentives in just the right ways — unlike the cars of old, which involved a trade-off between convenience on the one hand, and safety and the environment on the other.