By now it has become clear that driverless cars are right around the corner rather than being the fanciful imaginings of distant-future science fiction. A recent Phys.org article notes that at least a dozen auto manufacturers, including BMW, Kia, Volkswagen, and General Motors, plan on having fully self-driving cars on the road by 2020.
That is only three years away.
While the prospect of driverless cars is intimidating for several reasons — the potential dangers of malfunctions or the loss of an entire driver-based industry, for instance — there are also several aspects of driverless cars that could prove incredibly beneficial to both individual drivers and society as a whole.
— Phys.org (@physorg_com) January 20, 2017
“Evangelists for driverless cars see a bright future coming down the road: thousands of lives saved, countless driving hours freed up, cityscapes transformed with traffic jams vanquished,” the Phys.org article begins.
The possible pros and cons of driverless cars were a focus of discussion among academics, business people and world leaders at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this week.
The general consensus seems to be that whether you are excited by the prospect of driverless cars or anxious about it, you better be prepared for it.
“Companies are going to have to start thinking about it, governments are going to have to start thinking about it,” Missy Cummings, the director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University in North Carolina, said at Davos, according to Phys.org. “The reality is we can’t just keep our head in the sand like an ostrich.”
Governments are starting to think about it, and some are realizing that their infrastructure and economies might not be fully prepared for the transition.
“We don’t have, at this point, really well designed (plans) for re-education,” European Union transportation commissioner Violeta Bulc said at a panel in Davos. “All this massive change that has not been experienced before, because digitalisation is really making dramatic shifts.”
— SkpSoft Cars Feed (@skpsoft_car) January 21, 2017
However, the positive potential of the new technology reigned over the discussion.
Renault-Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn spoke of “a world where we are liberated not only to check our emails or watch TV while in the driver’s seat, but also run an entire office on the move,” Phys.org reports.
“You can be in the car and do everything you’re doing in the house or in the office—except that it’s mobile,” Ghosn mused.
Technology created by partnerships like the recent one between Amazon Alexa and the Hyundai Genesis will further strengthen the link between a driver’s car and their home by allowing them to issue basic voice commands from within their home to unlock their car or start its engine and turn on the heater.
In addition to saving drivers time by allowing them to focus on work or personal matters while the driverless car does the driving for them, the new technology could also help reduce the number of vehicles needed on the road, thus easing traffic congestion and potentially reducing exhaust emissions and saving resources.
Most importantly, driverless cars could also cut down on the estimated 1.3 million road deaths caused worldwide each year by eliminating human error often attributed to drivers being tired or getting distracted by other stimuli.
So far, one of the greatest testaments of the potential for driverless cars came last October when a driverless Uber truck successfully delivered a shipment of beer.
It will, however, still be a few years before we see the widespread use of driverless or fully-automated cars.
For now, developing plans for safety and logistics is the key for governments and automakers when it comes to driverless cars. As Phys.org points out, “the beer-delivering Uber truck had a human watching from the cabin, and a police car in tow.”
[Featured image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]