Futurists often propose autonomous vehicles as the solution to the traffic jams clogging megacities. In principle, self-driving cars could provide an answer to yet another problem: road accidents, which claim 1.25 million lives worldwide every year.
Of course, the two deaths in the United States this year involving autonomous vehicles call for caution but stringency might be an overreaction. As the technology develops, it might have the potential to relegate road carnage to history.
The path to safer roads, however, will not be easy.
Megacities will need to transform to realize the potential of such vehicles. Here are three areas that need special attention:
Before driverless cars are allowed to move freely, existing roads will have to be adapted to ensure traffic safety. One such adaptation will be Wifi networks that enable vehicle-to-infrastructure communication to support a range of sensors, including imaging, LiDAR, radar and ultrasonic, which together allow the car to “see” the road ahead.
This will enable clever routing and closer spaces between vehicles. Fewer accidents also mean fewer traffic jams. In addition, experts expect car ownership to drop as automation and electrification kick in. With the price of ride-hailing services falling, people are more likely to use robotaxis than own a car – potentially sinking the number of cars on the road.
As companies develop and test autonomous cars, the hope is that growing demand will force governments to develop the infrastructure.
Remember Ford Model T? The road infrastructure was lacking back then, but demand for the first mass produced car forced governments to construct national road networks.
In October last year, the UK Parliament introduced the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, which simplifies the process of getting autonomous vehicles to the road. The bill includes a plan for insurers to extend compulsory motor insurance to include driverless cars. This means insurance companies will cover the driver and the autonomous technology, so an accident victim could file a claim even if the car was in autonomous mode and not under the driver’s control.
Governments worldwide are drafting similar legislation and funding research. Thirty-three U.S. states now accommodate self-driving vehicles on public roads, while Germany in May last year passed a law allowing companies to test such cars on public roads. In China, the first self-driving licenses were issues in Shanghai earlier this year.
All of this is a sure sign that the technology is the future. The introduction of clear regulatory frameworks for the use and insurance of autonomous vehicles will be critical to the adoption of the technology.
All said, the biggest obstacle to fully automated driving isn’t technology but attitudes. The car has long been marketed as an icon of freedom. However, studies show that the younger generation sees it more as an irritant that disconnects people from their social lives.
That said, people are not necessarily prepared to embrace driverless cars. In a 2016 survey of 3,000 people by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), respondents aged 25-44 years were the most supportive of the idea of driverless vehicles. However, just 40 percent of these expressed comfort with being driven by a such a car.
A dramatic shift in attitude would be required for autonomous vehicles to be embraced widely.
Even if a manufacturing breakthrough means such cars become widely available from tomorrow, the world would not be prepared. There are still many issues to be addressed before mass uptake of driverless cars can occur, not least in the realm of insurance.
Yet, while the necessary infrastructure developments and attitudes won’t appear overnight, it’s just a matter of time before autonomous vehicles dominate our roads, unclogging them and hopefully reducing accident.
As with all content published on this site, these statements are subject to our Forward Looking Statement disclaimer: