Self-Driving Cars Could Save the World

Self-driven cars may bring about a transport revolution. They work off of sophisticated sensors and algorithms that allow self-driven cars to operate extremely efficiently, and safely, while also reducing congestion. However the costs and legal issues could potentially prohibit the proliferation of this technology

Transportation in the United States has been in a state of constant change since the dawn of the country itself. Roads and bridges have been built, tunnels and canals have been dug, and public transit has become popular in many cities across the country. Technological inventions such as steam engines and automobiles have also revolutionized transportation, however, a new transportation technology is on the horizon. Google, Tesla, and many other car companies are working on cars that use large amounts of data from dozens of sensors and systems to allow the cars to drive themselves. If self-driving cars become popular enough, they could solve traffic problems through coordinated, efficient, driving techniques that can only be safely executed by computers.

Tesla, Nissan, Mercedes, BWM, and Volvo, as well as many research institutions such as Google and Stanford University are working on self-driving cars. Google’s self-driving car uses four radars, wheel encoders, a GPS, and a laser system to generate a massive amount of data about its surroundings. Most of this data comes from the laser sensor, it uses 64 beams to generate over a million data points each second, which allows the computer to see all the way around the vehicle with a high density point cloud. The car’s onboard computer uses this data to distinguish cars, pedestrians, and cyclist from the surrounding environment. Their most recent prototype doesn’t even have a steering wheel, gas pedal, or brake; the car only has a start and stop button, as well as an interface for the car’s navigation system (Guizzo).

Automated vehicles use massive amounts of data to operate on an individual level, however the real revolution happens as they phase out manually driven cars, and every car in the area can become networked and integrated with every other car in the area. Experts predict that if 10% of traffic was automated, there would be 211,000 fewer crashes, we would use 102 million gallons less fuel, and we would save 756 million hours collectively due to lessened traffic per year, there would also be 4.7% fewer vehicles in total. The estimated savings and in time, money, and human life become even more extreme as more and more of the road traffic is replaced with automated vehicle traffic. Experts estimate that if 90% of manual vehicle road traffic where replaced with automated vehicle traffic,chartic there would be 4.2 million fewer accidents, saving almost 22,000 lives. We would also spend 2.7 billion fewer hours in traffic, and use 724 million gallons of gasoline collectively. However it should be pointed out that these numbers are all rough ballpark estimates, they’re purpose is to prove a point, they’re not meant for analytics (Plumer).

The route source of all these savings in time, money, and human life is that these cars will be able to drive almost perfectly due to the precise sensor measurements and computer control, and they will theoretically be able to communicate with other every other car in the area. To start with, self-driving cars will be able to safely drive close to other cars, which will allow them to draft behind each other. The Rocky Mountain institute estimates that at highways speeds, the reduction in wind drag forces on each car could reduce fuel consumption by 20 to 30 percent. Self-driven cars could also drive safely in thinner lanes, allowing more cars to fit side by side on current roads. This would reduce traffic congestion and fuel consumption (Plumer).

Self-driven cars could also be potentially networked to every other car in the area, so that every car would know precisely where every other car is, where it’s going, and what it’s going to do next. One of the uses of this is parking, since every car knows where every other car is, any car would be able to identify open parking spaces and be able to park itself. In San Francisco, transportation officials said that 30 percent of city traffic was due to people searching for parking, while a study from the Imperial College in London found that 40 percent of all urban gasoline usage was from people searching for parking spots (Wagstaff).

One of the problems of manually driven cars is that most of the time they aren’t being driven. Sharing cars is problematic and inefficient currently, as a result, a large percentage of cars aren’t being driven at any given time. As a result, large amounts of space that could be used for other things is dedicated to parking. Self-driven cars would be able to be shared between multiple people efficiently. Sharing self-driven cars would allow us to effectively solve the parking problem. This could be scaled up to entire cities, a system could be put in place where a self-driven taxi could be summoned via smart phone, in this situation, only enough cars to handle rush hour traffic would be needed. MIT professor Emilio Frazzoli estimated that all the transportation needs of a city of 6 million people could be handled by 300,000 self-driven cars (Wagstaff).

Due to the complex sensory systems and the nature of computers, mass adoption of self-driven cars would make accidents practically nonexistent. Since self-driven cars would be safer, they would also make biking and walking more popular since it would be less dangerous. Cars could also be made smaller and lighter since crashes wouldn’t be a concern, a car’s weight could be cut from 4000 pounds, to below a 1000 pounds. This down scaling would nearly double fuel efficiency on its own, however lighter cars would also make it easier to transition to electrically powered cars; since they would be more efficient, would be able to travel further on a single charge. Overall, this would increase efficiency even further, since power generation would be transferred to larger, more efficient power plants (Plumer).

Car companies have the goal of getting self-driven cars on the road by 2020. Depending on the cost of having such a system, and the fact that the average car on the road is 11 years old, it could easily take 20 years before self-driven vehicles become popular and available to everyone. However self-driven cars will be a luxury only available to a few, the laser sensor that Google’s self-driven car is based around costs $70,000 on its own. While the cost of the technology will likely fall over time as it becomes more popular, cars capable of driving themselves will likely cost over $100,000 for the foreseeable future. However the cost of the sensors necessary for self-driving cars will decrease as the technology becomes more popular due to economy of scale principles and the general decrease in price of technology over time (Wagstaff).

While the technology still needs time and testing to be developed, it also has to clear the obstacles of laws, regulations, and insurance. Laws all across the world will need to be updated to handle automated vehicles. While automated vehicles are much safer, they aren’t accident proof. So the question of who will be held responsible when an accident occurs must be answered, will the inattentive driver be responsible, or will the manufacturer be responsible (Plumer)?

Self-driven cars may effectively solve traffic problems, while saving energy and lives if they are able to be adopted on a wide enough scale. They’d do this through driving closer together, reducing drag at highways speeds, and by parking efficiently in urban environments. Self-driven cars will also be safer, making it safer for cyclists and other pedestrians, while also allowing for cars to be made smaller and lighter, making them even more efficient. However the development of laws, regulations, and insurance issues, as well as the massive cost will slow the adoption of self-driven cars. The question isn’t whether self-driven cars would be safer and more efficient, the question is whether or not they can become prevalent enough in society for us to notice these effects before we invent something better to replace them.

Plumer, Brad. “Here’s What It Would Take for Self-driving Cars to Catch on.”Washington Post. The Washington Post, 23 Oct. 2013. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

Markoff, John. “Google Cars Drive Themselves, in Traffic.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 09 Oct. 2010. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

Wagstaff, Keith. “Can L.A. Kill Traffic With Self-Driving Cars? – NBC News.” NBC News. N.p., 3 Oct. 2014. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

Guizzo, Eric. “How Google’s Self-Driving Car Works.” – IEEE Spectrum. N.p., 18 Oct. 2011. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

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