A car without a driver has long been the stuff of B-grade entertainment. For children, there’s Herbie “The [Volkswagen] Love Bug” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
Who can forget “Knight Rider,” the 1980s television show in which David Hasselhoff was routinely out-emoted by a custom Pontiac Trans Am? In the 1977 schlock classic “The Car,” a driverless Lincoln Continental terrorized a Utah town. The 1983 movie "Christine” dramatized a Steven King story about a Plymouth Fury with a mean streak.
But in the not-too-distant future, driverless cars will be leaving the special-effects studio and heading for your driveway. Back in 2004, the U.S. Department of Defense held a contest to see if driverless cars could negotiate a 150-mile course. None of the entrants succeeded. By 2012, Google was announcing that its fleet of autonomous cars was logging several hundred thousand miles in real-world traffic on roads across California and Nevada.
The potential safety benefits of driverless cars are remarkable. More than 30,000 Americans are killed each year in road accidents, and another 240,000 or so have injuries severe enough to require hospitalization. But the driverless car won’t get drunk. It won’t drive like an excitable teenager. It won’t suffer momentary lapses of attention. It will observe traffic rules. It won’t experience slowing reflexes or diminishing vision as it ages.
About 86 percent of U.S. workers drive to their jobs, and the average travel time is 25 minutes each way, according the U.S. Census Bureau. Multiply that by two directions, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, and the average person is spending more than 200 hours per year — the equivalent of five 40-hour workweeks — sitting in a car commuting to and from work.
In a world of driverless cars, this time — and all the additional time we now spend driving — could be used to work, draw up a shopping list, watch a movie, read a book, make a phone call, look out the window or even take a nap.
Traffic congestion could diminish, because automated cars, with their electronic reflexes, would be able to travel more closely — even “platooning” together into caravans. Also, automated cars can use narrower lanes and road shoulders, creating room for more lanes of traffic.
Ultimately, driverless cars could reshape our perspective on what it means to own a car. For example, instead of owning a car that is unused for 22 hours on many days, you might just dial up a car to pick you up and drop you off when you need it. The savants at Google predict that driverless cars could reduce the overall number of cars by 90 percent.
Imagine a long road trip where you can intentionally fall asleep “at the wheel” — and arrive safely the next morning.
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Already headed this way
An evolution in which driving becomes more automated is already underway. Most cars now on the road have cruise control that regulates speed, antilock brakes that pump much faster than any human foot can and headlights that turn on automatically.
Newer cars are boasting features like the ability to “see” the area around a car and assist with stopping or swerving, and to parallel-park without a human hand on the wheel.
Parents of teenage drivers and insurance companies are encouraging the installation of equipment that monitors speed and watches to see whether braking is done gradually or suddenly. Cars now speak directions to the driver and accept a number of vocal commands.
What’s next? A vocal command to set cruise control, stop or turn? Cars that automatically come to a full stop at stop signs and red lights? Cars that cannot exceed the speed limit?
Eventually, some parking lot in a crowded downtown area will announce that it is open only for driverless cars. That is, you will need to drive up to the entrance, then let the car park itself. That parking lot will be able to cram many more cars into its space, with fewer door dings and fender dents. And so other parking lots will follow.
Some city will announce that cars linked together with “platoon” technology can drive in its carpool lanes or in special toll lanes. Some state with wide-open spaces will announce that driverless cars are legal on its miles of lightly congested highways. Some community will announce that when you reach a residential area, all human drivers must hand off to the automation system for a slow and safe drive down the last mile or two of local roads.
Of course, the primary response of every honest and red-blooded American to the prospect of driverless cars must be: “Who can I sue when it goes wrong?”
Driverless cars will assuredly require all sorts of legal changes. For example, the state of New York has a law requiring that drivers keep at least one hand on the steering wheel at all times. But California, Nevada and Florida have already passed laws about driverless cars, and other states won’t be far behind.
However, I suspect that a combination of our litigious culture and the auto insurance companies will actually create strong incentives for the adoption of driverless cars.
My car insurance company already offers a deal by which if I have equipment installed that can monitor my speed and whether I am prone to quick stops, I can pay less for my car insurance. What happens when your insurance company politely informs you that if your car has certain automatic features installed, your car insurance is one amount, and if you do not have those features, your car insurance is five times as much? Or that your car insurance rates will drop according to what proportion of the time you get out of the way and let the car drive itself?
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These are the good old days
The technology for fully driverless cars is still a few years away from being commercially viable. But as it arrives, the social gains in safety, time and convenience will be too large to ignore. Federal and state governments have been mandating safety features in cars for years — and automated driving will eventually be safer than a significant share of the drivers currently on the road.
To save time, I’m already starting to get all nostalgic about the good old days of staring fixedly at the bumpers ahead of me and wincing every time someone in the next lane weaves back and forth. But before long, I suspect we will look back with bemusement on the days when enormous crowds of people each maneuvered their own piece of transportation machinery weighing several thousand pounds within a few feet of each other, both at high speeds and in stop-and-start conditions.
Automobile travel transformed how people relate to distance: It decentralized how people live and work, and gave them a new array of choices for everything from the Friday night date to the long-distance road trip. I occasionally marvel that we can take our family of five, with all our gear, door-to-door for a getaway to a YMCA family camp 250 miles away in northern Minnesota — all for the marginal cost of less than a tank of gas.
As driverless cars transform transportation yet again, adding levels of flexibility, safety and convenience, the car will become a sort of mobile room, just a place to spend time while the rest of our lives are going on.
Timothy Taylor is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, based at Macalester College in St. Paul.