Online Master of Science in Civil Engineering

The Future of Driving

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Over the next ten years, we’ll likely see driverless cars cruising alongside traditional autos on our roads. As the technology for self-driving cars is becoming more advanced and excitement grows, so do concerns and questions about their effect on the future of driving.

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Technology Aiding Drivers – an Old Concept

A completely driverless car that can operate in all conditions will be a truly revolutionary development. However, some features incorporated in these cars have been in use in automobiles for many decades now. Cruise control was invented in 1950 and is very common today. Automatic parking has been available for more than a decade now since it was first introduced in Toyota Prius in 2003.

The potential impact of driverless cars can be gauged by the fact that six out of every ten American drivers seek at least one autonomous-driving technology in their next car. Around 40% of drivers want technology to aid them in lane management, cruise control, and automatic emergency braking respectively. Self-parking technology found favor among one in every four drivers.

How Do Driverless Cars Work?

Driverless cars combine lasers, sensors, and cameras, a powerful on-board computer, and digital maps to track objects located more than 200 yards from the vehicle in all the directions. Size, shape, and movement pattern of all objects are analyzed and the vehicle’s speed and trajectory is determined accordingly.

Route and traffic data downloaded from digital maps are used to identify the shortest and most convenient route to the destination. Currently, there are ten car makers ranging from reputed names like Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz to technology giants like Google and Tesla Motors that have a pilot program for such cars.

Google’s car has been designed for riding as opposed to driving. The exteriors have been designed to offer a clear field of vision to the lasers, cameras, and sensors. This car is designed to run on electric batteries and has redundant systems as backup for steering, braking, computing, and other essential functions of the automobile.

Benefits of Driverless Cars

Driverless automobiles will remove human errors from the driving process. With no more instances of drunken driving or distracted driving, accidents are expected to fall by 90% once driverless cars become the norm.

Since software will drive the car, the modern vehicle can now be programmed to reduce emissions to the maximum extent possible. The transition to the new-age cars is expected to contribute to a 60% fall in emissions.

Combining digital maps and other technological tools with driverless automobiles will result in a more efficient driving experience. As on date, congestion on roads is causing urban Americans to spend close to 7 billion hours per year on the road, waste 3.1 billion gallons of fuel, and incur losses of around $160 billion due to traffic congestion.

With humans no longer involved in driving, commuters will save up to an hour per day, which will automatically result in many consequent advantages and benefits.

Another significant impact of driverless cars is that such cars can be parked in 15% less space. Currently, cars need to be parked with enough space between them for the driver to exit after parking and enter when removing the car from the parking space. With self-driving cars, vehicles can be stacked right next to each other. Urban areas facing acute space shortage will gain from the transition to driverless cars.

Impact on Public Transportation

Apart from personal transportation, this transition will have a significant impact on public transportation as well. Despite personal ownership of cars being very popular, the number of trips by Americans on public transportation has risen from 9.4 billion in 2000 to 10.6 billion in 2015. The number of public transit vehicles too has risen from around 59,600 to 62500 during this period.

For starters, the waiting time for a cab will come down from the average five minutes today to just 36 seconds. The cost of a ride too will come down to just $0.5 per mile in a driverless car. Finally, the number of cabs and other public transit vehicles on the road too will come down. The 13,000 taxicabs in Manhattan can be replaced by just 9000 driverless cars without any negative impact on availability or accessibility.

Challenges Affecting Driverless Cars

While driverless cars offer many benefits, there are numerous challenges and difficulties impacting its widespread acceptance. For starters, just one out of five Americans are comfortable with the idea of trusting their lives to a machine. There are questions about the reliability and trustworthiness of such cars. There have been instances of the sensors used in such cars malfunctioning in rainy or snowy conditions.

California’s pilot program saw Google’s car suffering from one incident per about 1,250 miles. Volkswagen’s car faced an incident every 57 miles while Nissan experienced one incident every 14 miles.

While people are ready to accept the risks of having unpredictable human drivers on the road, technology will be accepted only when it is completely reliable and absolutely foolproof.

The third impediment to acceptance of driverless cars is its cost. Google’s driverless car will come with a commercial price tag of around $150,000, which is just beyond the budget of the average car buyer

Further, widespread use of driverless cars will raise many new challenges. Should the cars be programmed to violate traffic laws to avoid injuries to human drivers? How will these cars share road space with unpredictable human drivers? Further, who will be at fault in event of an accident involving driverless cars? How will these cars function if other technologies like updated digital maps are not available?

Finally, the negative impact of these cars on the economy too must be considered. From 226 million in 2000, the number of highway vehicles in the USA has grown to more than 260 million in 2016.

The number of licensed drivers too has risen in this period from 191 million to 214 million. Just five states, including New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, and California, account for 73 million drivers or close to 35% of all drivers. What will happen to all taxi drivers and truck drivers if there were no more human-drivers’ cars on the road?

The Path Ahead

2015 saw driverless cars being used in mining and farming industries. In 2016, the US government allocated $4 billion for conducting pilot programs for testing such vehicles throughout the country and for collecting data that will be used to make policies governing such cars.

As of 2015, 16 states had introduced rules governing driverless cars. California has introduced rules related to safety certification, third-party demonstration tests, mandatory presence of a licensed driver in the vehicle, ongoing reporting requirements, and compliance with privacy and cyber security regulations.

By 2030, driverless cars are likely to become a part of the mainstream, and, by 2050, these cars will become the primary mode of transport in the country.

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