Perception versus Reality: Driverless Cars

Perception: Driverless cars are dangerous.

Reality: With approximately 1.25 million vehicle-related deaths each year, advocates argue that driverless technology is a solution for eliminating crashes caused by human error, which account for 90 percent of all accidents. But Tesla’s first fatal accident is causing people to wonder whether the promise of greater safety is accurate.

Here’s the truth: some drivers have given in to temptation and handed control to the vehicle, and Tesla’s current model wasn’t designed to operate without any human intervention.

Meanwhile, the technology is not yet mature. The cars need to be able to sense and navigate their surroundings more accurately. They also need software for reacting to unanticipated situations and resolving ethical dilemmas, such as choosing between hitting a pedestrian and swerving into oncoming traffic. In situations like these, drivers need the option to override autonomous functions. Still, Google reported that between 2009 and early 2015, all the accidents involving its test vehicles were the fault of other drivers.

Ultimately, widespread adoption of driverless cars will depend on whether they prove to be safer than the alternatives.

Perception: Only new drivers would buy them.

Reality: Bad publicity aside, an estimated 10 million driverless cars are expected be on the road by 2020. With media coverage focused on self-driving passenger vehicles, it’s easy to imagine that—once the technology is commercially viable—teenagers will be the earliest adopters: they’re quick to try new technologies, and they don’t have driving habits to unlearn.

Then again, older adults are beginning to face the difficult choice about when, or whether, to stop driving. Impaired vision, memory loss, and slow reaction time can make it impossible to drive safely. In fact, an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study revealed that fatal crash rates are highest among drivers aged 85 or older. Since giving up the car keys often means loss of independence, older people may be among the earliest adopters of driverless vehicles.

Other candidates include long-haul truckers who, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, drive 5.6 percent of all vehicle miles. Resting while the truck drives the route would make the trip more efficient and help justify the cost of the self-driving technology.

Perception: They are cool, but they don’t deserve so much hype.

Reality: Driverless cars will save the United States approximately US$1.3 trillion annually in fuel, accident, traffic congestion, and productivity costs, says Morgan Stanley. That’s a whopping eight percent of the U.S. GDP. And that’s not all. The impact of this technology will eventually cascade throughout the economy.

Consider auto insurance. Current policies are based on driver histories, but this will have to change if people aren’t driving. Among the impacts, according to industry analyst Brad Templeton, fewer accidents could lower payouts, or the cost of each repair might skyrocket as the technology becomes
more complex.

Media, content, and electronics companies could enjoy $5 billion in new revenue from audio, video, and apps for the cars and from the gear needed to run them. Meanwhile, as shipping and ride-hailing services adopt autonomous technology, the streetscape could be altered. Cars could drop off shoppers and move on to their next destination rather than sit idle in a store’s parking lot, leaving real estate free for both buildings and green space.

Dan Wellers is the Digital Futures global lead and senior analyst at SAP Insights.

This story originally appeared on the Digitalist.