by Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever, coauthors of “The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future“
We’re living in the transition zone when the convenience and economic benefit of hailing a car when we need one is becoming ingrained behavior. Car service companies around the globe, including Uber and Lyft, are providing a sharp contrast to purchasing, fueling, maintaining, insuring and housing a personal car.
Millennials were the early users, replacing the need for a designated driver after a night of clubbing with a ride conveniently ordered and paid for through an application on their phones.
The concept quickly spread to cities around the world. Now suburban parents increasingly bundle their kids off to soccer practice in Uber or Lyft, and use a shared car to drive to and from cocktail parties rather than risk drinking and driving. The cost of a rideshare lift home is extraordinarily low and it’s only a tap on the smartphone away. Younger generations now are showing less and less interest in owning a car.
Uber’s embattled and controversial CEO, Travis Kalanick, continues to make one claim that is quickly becoming indisputable. Rideshare services will replace car ownership entirely for large swatches of the population once self-driving car fleets enter the mainstream. A driverless car will cost significantly less to operate, bringing fares down even further. And it will be safer, more fuel efficient, and able to run without bathroom or coffee breaks.
Today most of us continue to prefer to ride in cars with someone at the wheel. A 2016 survey showed only one in five Americans would entrust his or her life to a driverless vehicle. Yet the technology is moving forward. Driverless cars are approved for road testing in 11 states, including California and Texas. Every major carmaker is working on driverless car technology, as are a growing number of well-funded startups.
Cities, too, are thinking about a future of cars that run on their own. Already, urban housing developers have begun eliminating garage space from many new buildings. As the demise of personal car ownership appears just around the bend for city dwellers, and in the not so distant future for the millions of truck drivers who will be displaced by autonomous technology, we need to take our foot of the gas, so to speak, and consider whether the benefits outweigh the potential hazards.
The most glaring and concerning hazard is the inevitable loss of employment to tens of millions of people making their living as drivers or working in the transportation industry. The new technology will bring very few replacement jobs. Society as a whole must look for ways to manage the transition to self-driving cars in the most equitable way possible.
At the same time, entering the new age of driverless technology promises a number of significant societal benefits.
A steep decline in accidents and deaths.
Car accidents remain a leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. Surveys show that 93 percent of crashes are attributed to human error. Autonomous vehicles won’t be subject to the foibles of drivers who become inebriated or inattentive, who fall asleep, or who text behind the wheel.
The adoption of driverless cars will remove one-third or more vehicles from city streets. A large percentage of the cars on the streets of our inner cities are looking for parking. But self-driving cars don’t need to park. They continually move to the next passenger. Also, shared vehicles will provide the same service collectively that personally owned vehicles now provide. We’re already seeing this happen with the growth carpooling options in Uber, Lyft and other apps.
Better fuel efficiency and less pollution.
With no need for steering wheels, brake and accelerator pedals, gearshift panels, heavy steel-protective beams and other components required by drivers, driverless cars will become much lighted and super efficient. This will make electric vehicles even more viable by allowing for longer driving ranges. And electric vehicles are by far cleaner and greener in emissions than combustion cars.
Valuable social benefits.
With self-driving cars, the disabled will no longer struggle to find transportation because they’ll have on-demand drivers. The elderly can enjoy more autonomy with lifts to their appointments or the grocery store ensured. In addition, women will no longer have to worry about getting a cab ride late at night. Teens will no longer face insurance discrimination, and minorities will no longer be subject to discriminatory racial profiling when flagging down rides.
Cut down on signage and signals.
Having no human eyes behind the wheel will eliminate the need for much of the traffic lights and signs. Robotic cars will synchronize mass movements across intersections and on and off freeways wirelessly. Eliminating traffic signals and signage will save many billions of dollars and also beautify our cities and our highways.
Free up time.
When we no longer need to spend time behind the wheel, we free up time for more personal or professional endeavors — or time to simply catch up on sleep. We won’t have to shorten our day and rush home to drive children to soccer or ballet practice. And think of the time we’ll no longer need to invest in servicing our cars.
Open urban spaces.
Cities can rework land-use patterns once parking spaces and parking garages are no longer needed. Urban centers will dramatically change to focus on human amenities when there’s no longer a need to accommodate personal cars.
Let’s be clear: Driverless cars still have a long way to go before they become the dominant platform. But over time, as the benefits more and more outweigh the negatives, society will shift to an autonomous future where humans rarely, if ever, sit behind the wheel of cars and trucks.
Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever are co-authors of the new book,”The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future“. Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering. He is a globally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post and the author of two other books, including “The Immigrant Exodus“, which was named by the Economist as a 2012 Book of the Year. Alex Salkever is vice president of marketing communications at Mozilla. He was a technology editor of BusinessWeek, a regular science contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, and a writer on “The Immigrant Exodus“.