While there are many potential benefits to be derived from driverless car technology, the greatest is undoubtedly safety. With smart phones and in-car entertainment options, distracted driving is rampant among the drivers of today. Further, people consistently choose to break driving laws by engaging in drunk driving, speeding, and failing to follow the rules of the road.
Each year in the United States, approximately 30,000 people are killed in car accidents. In Tennessee, that number varies between 900 and 1,000 people per year. Current research suggests the use of self-driving cars could reduce that number by 90%. That means that automated vehicles could eventually save the lives of 27,000 Americans each year, or 270,000 Americans every ten years. On an even greater scale, there are approximately 1.2 million traffic accident fatalities around the world each year. As driverless technology spreads, millions of lives could be saved. These numbers indicate that driverless cars could have one of the greatest impacts on safety ever made by technology, putting it near the ranks of societal advances such as vaccines.
But of course many more people are injured than are killed in traffic accidents. Many of those wrecks are life-changing events, causing long-term disability, pain, and suffering that can impact the entire family of the actual victim of the wreck. Hundreds of millions of health care dollars are expended to treat car wreck victims, impacting Medicare, Medicaid, and private health insurance companies and those who fund the health care system (taxpayers and ratepayers). The uninsured victims increase uncompensated care costs for hospitals and doctors, and those costs are passed on to ratepayers and taxpayers. The productivity loss to society is equally enormous, because all too many people are left unable to work, or to work only for lesser income, which strains the federal disability insurance system.
Another huge benefit of self-driving cars would be the ability to provide transportation for those currently at the mercy of other drivers. Elderly people, persons with disabilities or those with diminished driving ability, for instance, could have freedom of movement in driverless cars. People under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or people suffering from fatigue, would also greatly benefit from the ability to be transported by car without having to actually drive. For each of these scenarios, however, self-driving cars will need to be at Level 4 automation to offer these life-changing benefits. Even before full automation is reached, though, some people in these categories might benefit from partial automation. In 2016, a former race car driver who is now a quadriplegic was granted America's first license to drive an autonomous car on public roads. Nevada is allowing this man to drive a car that he controls with movements of his head, his breath, and voice commands. Though he is telling the car what to do, the car makes all mechanical maneuvers itself, and thus qualifies as semi-autonomous.
Bicyclists and pedestrians would also benefit from driverless technology. As anyone who has ever ridden a bicycle on a street can tell you, many drivers ignore laws requiring them to share the road with cyclists. Further, distracted driving and texting and driving has put bicyclists and pedestrians at great risk—when a driver looks down at his phone, he can easily veer towards the shoulder of the road or fail to see a pedestrian with the right-of-way. Self-driving cars would be operated with multiple cameras and would thus be more aware of their surroundings, increasing safety for cyclists and pedestrians.
Another potential long-term benefit is the need for less parking, especially in urban areas. Many people believe driverless cars will eventually lead to fewer people owning cars, or families owning only one car. Ride sharing services such as Uber and Lyft could eventually offer cars summoned in mere minutes with no human driver accidentally driving to the wrong location or choosing an inconvenient route, making such services faster and more convenient. Cars for these services, if driverless, could theoretically never park, simply moving directly from one rider to the next and stopping only to refuel. Families could have their driverless car take one partner to work, then return to the home to transport the other partner. As technology improves, the volume of cars on the road (and thus needing to be parked) will likely decrease. Many parking lots and parking garages, then, could be freed up and used for things like convenient housing options or additional green space.
An increase in productive time would be another benefit to driverless cars. Currently when driving, a person must (or at least should) be focused solely on safely operating the vehicle. With fully autonomous cars, riders will be free to engage in other activities. While riding, people could work, read, watch movies, communicate with friends or family, or engage in any number of activities, thus increasing the number of productive hours in most commuters’ days.
Further, self-driving cars could make the process of emergency evacuations more efficient and successful. If all or many of the cars evacuating an area due an event such as a hurricane were self-driving and had car-to-car communication technology, the evacuation process could potentially move more people to safety more quickly.
For an interesting article about the life-saving potential of self-driving cars, go to http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/09/self-driving-cars-could-save-300000-lives-per-decade-in-america/407956/.
To read more about the potential impact of driverless cars on parking, go to http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2016/01/future-parking-self-driving-cars.