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The Future Of Driverless Cars Is Both Wonderful And Worrisome

Photo courtesy of Gmanviz via Flickr

The truth about driverless cars lies somewhere in between your mother shouting “not in my lifetime!” over dinner, and big companies promising a revolution tomorrow.

A slew of automotive and tech companies have self-driving cars in development. In the ranks are not only Google, but Chinese search engine company Baidu, Mercedes Benz, Audi, BMW, GM, and Volvo — all of which expect to have cars on the road by 2020 that can drive themselves at least part of the time.

Driverless cars may or may not be right around the corner, but when they do roll around, the implications will be huge. Here’s what insiders think the introduction, and eventual growth, of driverless cars could mean for society at large.

The upsides

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1. Driverless cars could save lives, lead to safer roads

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”ciZVD5scW3MNpRZ0jkNGkcPxZJAFLtj7″]Today, 90 percent of automobile accidents — which lead to over a million deaths worldwide per year — can be attributed to human error. 90 percent of crashes, then, could be prevented with the adoption of driverless cars, by Google’s reckoning.

One of the main purpose of driverless cars is , indeed, to reduce the probability of human accidents. A computer that is connected to the transportation infrastructure — including traffic lights, speed limits, and signs, as well as to other cars — has already been shown by preliminary data to be much less likely to crash than a human driver.

Driverless cars would provide safer transportation for the elderly, disabled, inexperienced, and drunk, all of which may be more prone to accidents on the road or unable to drive at all.

2. Driverless cars may make commuting faster and easier, and increase productivity

According to a report by McKinsey and Co., the rise of driverless cars would save the average person 50 minutes a day, time they could spend however they please.

Traffic and congestion that slow up travel could also be reduced, especially on a road full of other driverless vehicles; commuters need not stress or spend time parking.

The caveat? According to recent research, on a road with 25 percent driverless cars, congestion could be worse than a road with all human drivers. This means they may not significantly reduce traffic until a majority of cars are autonomous.

3. Contribute to a rise of sustainable travel and fuel efficiency

Some estimates say that driverless cars could reduce fuel consumption by 20 to 30 percent. They would eliminate gasoline wasted searching for parking, and reduce wind drag by traveling closer together, and stopping less.

What’s more, self-driving cars will allow a transition into lighter and more sustainable design by decreasing the need for bulky, crash-resistant vehicles. With smoother and safer traffic, people may also be more inclined to bike and walk.

4. Better city living, plus a more comfortable suburbia

Driverless cars could influence living situations in several different ways. Because parking would be simpler and driverless car-sharing more prevalent than ownership, city living could become even more attractive. Alternatively (or additionally), a further commute becoming smooth and hands-free could spur the next explosion of suburban sprawl.

5. Less or more car ownership

Most believe that driverless cars would decrease the rate of car ownership due to driverless taxis, car-sharing and the like. But as the Washington Post points out, it’s also possible that because the utility of cars will increase (and the driving qualifications eliminated — kids can get around without a driver), people might actually buy more.

6. Billions in benefits

Lastly, it’s estimated that financially speaking, even a small amount of driverless cars would save billions of dollars. A paper from the Eno Center for Transportation tallied that even if just 10 percent of cars were driverless, the U.S. would save $37 billion each year in death prevention, fuel savings, and other factors.

If that 10 percent were to increase to 90, the amount would total at a stunning $447 billion in savings.

The flip side

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Your mother isn’t the only one wary about driverless cars. Putting our lives in the hands of technology and — gasp — AI — will be a difficult transition for many. But even aside from trust issues, there are other legitimate concerns that come with driverless cars:

1. More mileage, more fuel use

While many believe fuel use will decrease with the rise of autonomous vehicles, others aren’t so sure. One study finds that ride-sharing would mean that though car ownership may be down by 43 percent, car usage would be up 75 percent.

This means less parking, and more mileage per vehicle.

2. A loss for auto insurance, health insurance and auto repair

Less accidents are great for commuters and society on whole, but those that profit from car accidents (morbid, but true) will be at a great loss. In particular, car and health insurers will eventually see a plummet in premiums.

Similarly, the auto repair industry and parts suppliers could be in a bit of a pickle.

3. Cuts in police force and revenue, and other job loss

According to Business Insider, an often overlooked pitfall of driverless cars would be its impact on police forces, almost half of whose interactions with people are due to traffic-related infractions. This means that autonomous cars could cut police forces in half.

Currently, speeding tickets in America account for $6.2 billion per year, without which state and local governments, which often lean on this revenue, could be in serious financial trouble.

Others facing job loss would be hundreds of thousands of taxi drivers and over a million truck drivers.

5. Legal, regulatory, and privacy issues

Lastly, with driverless cars would inevitably come a new set of legal, regulatory, and privacy concerns. Would connected autonomous vehicles store and share data, and could they be hacked or weaponized? Who would be liable for accidents, should they occur? What standards should a car have to meet before being considered safe?

All of these questions will be answered in due time; until then they remain legitimate — although metaphorical — roadblocks keeping you and I from a driverless utopia.

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Jennifer Markert