October 29, 2013
Car companies such as Volvo are moving closer to fully autonomous vehicles.
Research by independent U.S. thinktank the Eno Center for Transportation
claims that even with adoption rates of just 10 percent, autonomous
vehicles could help save $25 billion annually, while 50 percent of
crashes and related injuries could be avoided.
In the U.S. alone, more than 30,000 people die in road traffic accidents
every year and in 90 percent of cases, driver error is a factor. The
result — 2.2 million injury or death-inducing car crashes annually at an
economic cost of $300 billion.
As the report stresses: “Over 40 percent of these fatal crashes involve
alcohol, distraction, drug involvement and/or fatigue. Self-driven
vehicles would not fall prey to human failings, suggesting the potential
for at least a 40 percent fatal crash-rate reduction, assuming
automated malfunctions are minimal and everything else remains
According to its figures, even if only 10 percent of cars on the road
were autonomous vehicles, it could lead to 211,000 fewer serious crashes
and 1,100 fewer deaths per year but that to eradicate all accidents in
which human error is proven to be a factor, a full 90 percent of
vehicles would need to be autonomous.
And while the logic of the thinktank’s central statistics and central
arguments are very simplistic — “AVs can be programmed to not break
traffic laws. They do not drink and drive. Their reaction times are
quicker and they can be optimized to smooth traffic flows, improve fuel
economy, and reduce emissions” — that doesn’t mean that they aren’t
An in-depth study by MIT and Audi (published in June) designed to
understand the impacts of stress and strain on drivers under different
conditions found that getting behind the wheel of a car can be more
stressful than skydiving for the first time. “We found that certain
driving situations can be one of the most stressful activities in our
lives,” said Kael Greco, project leader, MIT SENSEable City Laboratory of the results.
Likewise the annual distracted driver survey, published by State Farm
Insurance to coincide with Thanksgiving Day weekend, consistently shows
that driver distraction levels are climbing, thanks to smartphones and
the mobile web. Almost half (48 percent) of 18-29-year-old drivers in
the survey said that they surfed the net via their handset while driving
(up from 29 percent in 2009), while more than one in three said they
checked social media sites and 30 percent admitted to updating their
status while behind the wheel. But the most popular activity was
checking email, which 46 percent of respondents admitted to doing.
Therefore, the sooner that human distraction can be removed from the
driving equation, the better. However, despite massive technological
advances, there are still a number of issues that will need to be
addressed before autonomous vehicles become a common sight. Chief among
these is price. Currently the sensors, lasers, cameras and GPS modules
needed to make a car autonomous cost a combined $100,000 and that’s
without adding in the cost of the car itself.
“This is unaffordable for most Americans, with 2012 sticker prices for
the top 27 selling vehicles in America ranging from $16,000 to $27,000,”
says the report. The hope is that as technologies come down in price
and that as adoption rates increase, the ticket price of a self-driving
car will fall to between $50,000 and $25,000 over the first decade of
But as well as cost, systems will need to be sufficiently robust that
they can be trusted to perform in all conditions and laws will need to
be changed as in the US and in Europe; a car cannot be allowed on the
road unless an adult is in full control.
Despite the challenges, a number of experts believe that the age of the
autonomous vehicle is almost here. In August, an ABI Research report on
the subject stated that by 2020, the first autonomous cars would be
hitting the roads and that by 2032, in the US at least, 10 million such
new cars would be rolling out of the showrooms and onto the public
highways every year.
A number of car companies, including Nissan and Volvo have stated that they will be offering self-driving cars by 2020.