Driverless Vehicles Coming Faster than You Think

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We hear about automated vehicles frequently, with fresh stories of new advances and entrants to the industry appearing seemingly on a daily basis.

On this edition of FS Insider, we spoke with Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman, authors of the must-read book, Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead. They argue that automated technology is coming faster than most think and that the effects will be far-reaching.

The Myth of 100% Safety

A common objection to their thesis is that safety issues will prevent rapid adoption of automated vehicles on public roads. However, Lipson and Kurman don’t see it that way. The current perception, Kurman stated, is that driverless vehicles must operate perfectly with no chance of an accident.

“They are setting the bar so high that in a way, you could say they are correct,” Kurman said. “A driverless car will never be (100% safe).”

Instead, the authors argued, what we have to do is compare driverless technology to the best technology that we have available now, which is human drivers. Of course, given that car accidents are a leading cause of death, it's pretty clear that humans are a far cry from 100% safety as well.

To quantify the difference between automated and human-driven vehicles, the authors felt we need to use a common metric.

“The number that we advocate specifically—which is just a quick and dirty calculation—is roughly around 400,000 miles between collisions (for automated vehicles),” Lipson said. “That is twice as safe as the average human driver, (who) drives 200,000 miles between collisions.”

This idea, what the authors termed “human safe,” is that if an autonomous system can be shown to be twice as safe as a human driver, they think it is ready to be implemented.

Rapid Adoption Imminent

We’re arguably already at this point, they noted, and the idea that mass deployment of driverless vehicles will take another decade or two is unlikely.

Google has already demonstrated that its driverless vehicles are safer than human drivers.

As public perception changes, the authors expect most consumers—and especially younger consumers—will rapidly adopt the technology.

There’s a myth that consumers don’t want autonomous vehicles, but many different surveys have shown that when people are asked about it, they are ready to give up driving, Kurman said. And maybe, not surprisingly, younger respondents are more eager and more comfortable with automated vehicles as they have more trust in artificial intelligence.

Disruption Coming

The potential for numerous market disruptions is high, the authors argued. The automotive industry has traditionally had high barriers to entry. Competition is strong, but the market has remained divided between a set number of known players for years.

However, if software becomes the most critical component of an automotive sale, Kurman stated, it will likely change the dynamics of the industry. There’s also the possibility for aftermarket substitutes and conversions, perhaps in the form of a kit, to make consumers’ existing cars driverless.

“We think that autonomous vehicles have the potential to rearrange the pretty old-fashioned, static industry that has been the automotive industry,” Kurman said.

Ripple effects are likely to disrupt other industries, as well, all the way from suppliers to supporting industries and infrastructure-related services. Obviously, the introduction of driverless vehicles is likely to put many professional drivers, such as truck drivers and taxi drivers, out of a job.

“The technology will continue to get better,” Kurman said. “The hard part is going to be sure the regulatory infrastructure is prepared to deal with autonomous vehicles.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation has been struggling with how to deal with autonomous vehicles, the authors said, but it has recently released a 100-plus page memo of its strategy. The DOT did a good job of laying out all the issues, they noted, including that notion that it needs to codify the safety framework for autonomous vehicles.

There are obstacles, but the authors think adoption will happen sooner, rather than later.

“With all the lives that can be saved, and all the new opportunities that will arise … the benefits are enormous and the sooner we can get this to happen the better,” Lipson said.

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