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Self-Driving Cars Will Be The Biggest Auto Safety Innovation Ever

Autonomous vehicles could cut traffic accidents by 90%, according to a new study.

Self-Driving Cars Will Be The Biggest Auto Safety Innovation Ever
[Photo: Flickr user Matthias Rhomberg]

Like so many things in life, the future of driving is automated. We’ve known this for some time. But as carmakers and tech companies tinker away crafting the future of autonomous transportation, we’re only beginning to foresee the benefits of self-driving cars. Here’s a big one: They may save your life.

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In fact, autonomous vehicles could reduce traffic accidents by 90%, according to a new report from McKinsey. In the process, our new robot cars will save us $190 billion in wrecked cars, broken bones, and other costs incurred by plowing into things with our current fleet of brain-driven cars.

On average, about 30,000 people in the United States die in traffic accidents every year. That number would of course be considerably higher without the 1968 federal law requiring automakers to include seat belts in cars, not to mention the state laws requiring drivers to actually wear them, which were first enacted in the 1980s.

Still, as beneficial as innovations like the seat belt and air bags may have been, neither is said to have cut fatalities by 90%. The idea here is that the array of sensors, cameras, and computing capabilities that will drive our future cars will be smart enough to avoid colliding with other vehicles and structures. Even if one of these computer cars fails from time to time, they’ll likely still have a much better track record than vehicles operated by our far less precise–and more easily distracted–human brains.

Of course, it will be some time before this reality arrives. Companies like Google, Nissan, Mercedes, and plenty of others are busy making autonomous vehicles a priority, but we won’t see the payoffs until a significant number of these things are on the road. According to McKinsey’s report, mass adoption of self-driving cars will begin 15 years from now. By 2040, 75% of cars could be self-driving, according to IEEE.

If McKinsey’s timeline seems ambitious, it’s worth noting that it is by no means guaranteed. Their study, which was compiled from interviews with automotive industry experts, might be colored by just a touch of industry optimism.

Explains The Wall Street Journal:

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The industry-funded Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates there is a 14% decline in claims in cars with automatic braking and even when there is a crash, the damage is much lower. Although it is widely believed that more widespread adoption of these technologies will further enhance safety, McKinsey’s view that fully autonomous vehicles will begin to dominate roads by 2030 isn’t a sure bet.

In 2000, for instance, many auto executives and research firms predicted hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles would be a prevalent form of transportation by 2020, but some car companies have backed away from that technology. More recently, electric vehicles have been held up as the future, but low gas prices and the high price of technology have slowed their adoption.

Whatever the statistics and time frame may wind up being, your futuristic robot car is on its way. And it probably won’t kill you.

About the author

John Paul Titlow is a writer at Fast Company focused on music and technology, among other things.

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