So many aspects of our lives have gone to automation that everything else, including driving a vehicle, is on the table for technology to take over. Google has their own project working towards that end. Nevada passed a law that made it possible in their state. Are we close to sitting back and letting our cars do the driving?
If so, what are the benefits? Will it be safe? Will it actually make the roads safer?
There are four good reasons that make perfecting driverless car technology something that we should push for, but is society ready for it? We may find out sooner than later.
One of the long-term goals of the autonomous driving movement is to connect vehicles with each other as well as the roads themselves in a way that are not possible with human drivers. Vehicle spacing in high-traffic areas causes congestion that could easily be alleviated through "smart" cars that engaged with each other.
"Cars at a stop light must take off individually right now, one right after another," said Dr. Gil Shipley, a professor of Stanford School of Engineering. "If cars were on auto-pilot and connected with one another, they could all start pulling forward in unison which would be both safer and more efficient."
It's a sad statement about the direction that western society is heading, but it's a reality nonetheless. Being able to use drive times to do work, spend time with family, or simply relax is a clear potential benefit of having an autonomous car.
With an average commute of 35 minutes in metro areas, this time could be spent doing anything other than paying attention to the road. There are instances when this is happening already even with a human driver.
Today, a blind person or someone with other disabilities must rely on others for their transportation. The prospects of empowerment for the handicapped is a huge potential benefit of autonomous vehicles.
"We do everything we can to get people into vehicles more easily and to allow them to drive, but there are some disabilities that are beyond our industry's control," said Felicia Chow of Mobility Vehicle Financing. "It pains me to know that some people simply can't get about on their own."
That could change. Driverless vehicle technology isn't simply for convenience or safety. It's possible for those who are completely unable to drive themselves to realize the freedom of "one's own wheels" through autonomous vehicles.
This is the component that is both most compelling as well as drawing the most skepticism. Some believe that computers lack the ability to take in every factor in the surrounding environment as well as within the vehicle itself, analyze the data, and make the right decisions about how to respond to circumstances.
Others think the trade-off of fewer drunk, unskilled, or distracted drivers outweighs the potential drawbacks of non-human road interactions. This was highlighted in August, 2011, when Google experienced their first driverless car crash. The company is quick to note that it was under human control at the time.
What do you think? Will driverless cars make roads safer? This infographic explores that idea and points to some of the stats behind distracted driving, one of the leading motivations behind the driverless car movement.
Click to enlarge.