It's 2030 and less than 1% of the current 190 million drivers in the U.S. can still legally drive. The reason: all 51 states (Puerto Rico was granted statehood in 2022) have prohibited human drivers from taking direct control of passenger vehicles while on public roads unless they are specifically trained and have a compelling reason. Farfetched?
The Case for Autonomous Cars
There are pressing reasons to get artificially intelligent, self-driving cars to market as quickly as it is safely possible to do so. Yet, while the idea of fleets of Google carbots delivering pizzas automatically is mesmerizing, the real justification to accelerate availability of this technology is the potential for a dramatic reduction in injury and fatality rates.
In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recognizes the impact that both alcohol use and distracted driving have on public safety. Recent data shows that:
- Alcohol-impaired driving was involved in 31 percent of fatalities in the U.S. in 2010.
- In 2009, of the 5,474 people killed in distracted-driving related crashes in the U.S., 995 (18%) died in accidents with reports of cell phone use as a distraction.
- Distracted driving as a whole accounted for 16% of the 33,804 total traffic deaths in 2009. [Update 12/10/2012: distracteddriveraccidents.com has an eye-opening infographic with more recent statistics on this problem.]
However, statistics in the United States compare quite well to most of the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) lists traffic fatalities as the #10 cause of death worldwide, accounting for 1.2 million deaths in 2008.
With approximately 3 trillion miles logged each year in the United States, there is an average of 1 death per 88 million road miles. Although much more data is needed to accurately gauge the safety prospects of self-driving vehicles, the track record is very promising. Of the 250,000 miles logged by Google's autonomous cars so far, two accidents have been recorded and both were the fault of human operators. Two things are certain: self-driving vehicle software won't drink while driving, and it actually can keep its attention on the road while posting Facebook updates.
Industry analysts believe that this technology won't be ready for public consumption for 10 years, but signs point to a more rapid adoption. The attention that car manufacturers are investing indicates a desire to make this capability available quickly. Google project manager Anthony Levandowski states that their self-driving cars are already completing test courses faster than humans and he thinks that a better-than-human safety record will be shown much sooner than the next decade.
Industry Embraces Autonomous Technology
In 2008, General Motors stated that they would begin testing driverless cars by 2015, and that they could be on the road by 2018. More recently, General Motors chairman William Ford, Jr. talked about a connection revolution at the ITS 2011 conference in Orlando. Similarly, GM's Vice President for Global Research and Development Alan Taub promoted technologies such as vehicle-to-vehicle communications, but worried about the significant challenge of still having humans at the wheel. In 2011, Taub stated:
The technologies we’re developing will provide an added convenience by partially or even completely taking over the driving duties. The primary goal, though, is safety. Future generation safety systems will eliminate the crash altogether by interceding on behalf of drivers before they’re even aware of a hazardous situation.
The impact of intelligent vehicle systems can already be seen in declining fatality statistics in the U.S. - down nearly 58% from 1.73 (per 100 million) in 1995 to 1.14 in 2009.
Evolving Legal Status
Once legal hurdles, liability issues and public perception challenges are overcome, and autonomous vehicles cars begin driving with injury and fatality rates lower human-driven vehicles drivers, the liability burden will shift. Unless a compelling reason can be found, humans must yield to self-driving cars that have a better, proven track record. While Taub says that driving for humans is "fun", fun is no longer an option when lives are at stake and better alternatives exist.
The shift to self-driving cars is not something that has occurred overnight. Although this technology has received a lot of press in the past few years, we've actually been moving towards greater vehicle autonomy for decades with capabilities such as adaptive cruise control, electronic stability control, collision warning systems, and lane departure detection to name a few.
Self-driving technology will initially require a competent driver be able to take control at a moment's notice and many governments are racing to make changes in the law. These changes seem premature since the legal and liability issues presented by this type of augmentation should not be different than with today's intelligent technologies - the human driver is still ultimately responsible for the vehicle operation at all times.
However, the question of liability will become murky at the point when self-driving vehicles can fully assume control of the vehicle from start to finish, and not require that a human driver be capable of taking control. A second round of changes in laws will be required, and questions of legal liability must be decided. Although driving will be much safer overall, in any particular accident, an assumption of fault will fall on autonomous technology until proven otherwise. Manufacturers and the developers of such technologies cannot afford millions of dollars in settlements for each incident. We must eventually make decisions to offer legal protection to manufacturers and the developers of these technologies since the benefits to the public as a whole are clear.