However, the road to completely autonomous vehicles is a bumpy one, and there are obstacles – both literal and figurative – in the way. Amid safety concerns and ethical quandaries, carmakers and OEMs will need cooperation from regulators and to sway public opinion before we reach the widespread adoption of AVs.
With the number of self-driving cars and trucks on the roads rising each day, how realistic is the promise of transformation? Will AVs be to transportation what the PC was to office work, as Bill Gates famously claimed?
Let’s find out.
Self-driving has already arrived
While you might not be used to seeing them out and about in your local area, self-driving vehicles are already on the roads – and the technologies are advancing rapidly.
Powered by technologies such as computer vision, lidar, radar, ultrasonic sensors, GPS, and AI/machine learning, AVs are becoming increasingly accurate and reliable sources of transportation.
So it’s no surprise that multiple big tech players already have their hands in the game. Alphabet Inc.-owned Waymo operates a ride-hailing service in San Francisco and Phoenix. Aurora Driver is ‘feature complete’ and the company plans to launch the system for trucks commercially next year. Aurora is also working on self-driving systems that will power freight logistics and ride-hailing services. Meanwhile, Cruise robotaxis are in operation in San Francisco and soon will be rolled out in Houston and Dallas.
Zoox purpose-built electric robotaxis ferry employees in California and Nevada between office buildings and around the company’s HQ. And over in China, Pony.ai operates a fully driverless ride-hailing service in Guangzhou.
McKinsey predicts that by 2035, autonomous driving could create $300 billion to $400 billion in revenue.
But what’s actually in it for individuals – and societies – when it comes to autonomous driving? Are AVs really as revolutionary as the tech industry claims?
Driving energy efficiencies
It’s no secret that we’re in a climate emergency, in large part due to the unsustainable use of fossil fuels. In the US, transportation is the primary contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles making up 30% of GHGs. In Europe, that number is almost one-quarter.
The vast majority of AVs in development have electric engines, making them significantly more environmentally friendly than traditional gas-powered vehicles. Of course, electric cars as they stand are not a perfect solution: the energy doesn’t always come from clean sources, and there are issues around battery disposal and resource mining. But compared with vehicles that use gas or diesel, electric vehicles have significantly less negative impact.
Research has found that AVs use less energy while driving than human-driven vehicles. Humans use more gas as they drive at high speeds, brake, and re-accelerate excessively.
Another way in which driverless cars will create a positive environmental impact is by reducing the need for multiple-car households, as well as eliminating unnecessary trips, as there won’t be a need for a human present to make the journey. One report estimates that there will be 11 million shared driverless vehicles operating globally by 2030.
AVs also decrease congestion on the roads as they are able to intelligently interact with one another as well as with the road infrastructure. Using real-time data and AI features, the car is able to calculate which routes will be most efficient and least congested, and move more steadily in relation to other cars.
Increased safety with tech behind the wheel
For many, the idea of leaving our lives in the hands of a machine-controlled vehicle is disconcerting, but does the data actually support this apprehension?
The reality is that humans make mistakes, such as driving while tired, distracted, or under the influence of alcohol. In fact, the NHTSA estimates that 94% of serious crashes are due to human error or poor choices, such as drunk or distracted driving. There isn’t a danger of this with AVs.
However, even with the potential for human error, we’re generally pretty good at avoiding accidents. On a per-mile basis, drivers in the US are 99.999819% crash-free. So, AVs are going to have to trump that to be able to provide a safer experience than human drivers.
While there is no data yet that could provide a direct comparison with autonomous vehicles, there were 400 reports of crashes with vehicles with partially automated driver-assist systems to the NHTSA in 2022. In these instances, it’s often unclear whether the partially autonomous car was at fault or another human. As it stands, we don’t have clear enough data to make direct comparisons when it comes to safety.
What we do know about the safety of AVs is that the tech is advancing rapidly. Advanced sensors combined with AI algorithms will ensure split-second reaction times to potential collisions and threats. As computer vision becomes more accurate and able to decipher foreign objects on the road, there will be fewer and fewer instances of crashes due to the car’s system not recognizing an obstacle – or person – in front of it. Even with cars that are not yet fully autonomous, ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems) are predicted to reduce the number of accidents by 15% in Europe by 2030.
The road ahead: Challenges and obstacles
The safety of AVs still has a long way to go – headlines are hitting the news around accidents caused by self-driving vehicles. While these crashes may be happening less frequently than with human-driven vehicles, these news stories remain to be an obstacle to gaining public trust.
The McKinsey report found that consumer trust in AV safety is in decline, as is consumer support of government AV regulation, concluding that consumers "want opportunities to test-drive AD systems and more information about the technology.”
Carmakers must work on gaining public trust through testing, transparency, and making data available on the safety of their cars in adverse and abnormal conditions. This is just a matter of time, as vehicles become more advanced and testing expands enough to be able to give consumers a real indication of the risk level.
Obstacles that remain include incorporating autonomous driving in difficult weather conditions, such as snow, heavy rain, and hail. AVs also need to be able to recognize abnormal objects which may be in their path and navigate construction projects on the roads.
One last big remaining challenge to the widespread rollout of completely driverless vehicles is regulation. Many governments have not yet put into law the comprehensive regulation needed for AVs, especially as the conversation around ethics and liability causes concern. Again, it’s only a matter of time before regulators catch up with the technology and introduce laws and global standards that allow self-driving vehicles to operate freely.
While not without their risks, AVs could usher in a transportation revolution, with the promise of new efficiencies: from freeing up time we’d otherwise spend driving to more sustainable energy consumption and passenger safety. It’s now up to automakers to leverage technology and build autonomous vehicles that are safe enough for expanded use.
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