Why Driverless Cars Will Make Your Life Perfect

Autonomous cars could one day make your commute safer, faster, and easier on the environment.

National Journal
Alex Brown
Jan. 31, 2014, midnight

Auto ex­perts don’t know when cars will be truly hu­man-proof — but they prom­ise that day is com­ing.

“[We could have] fully autonom­ous vehicles by 2018, 2020,” said Cath­er­ine Mc­Cul­lough, who heads the In­tel­li­gent Car Co­ali­tion. But Audi’s Brad Stertz says cars that can travel start-to-fin­ish without a hu­man hand touch­ing the wheel are “a gen­er­a­tion away at the earli­est.”

Whenev­er they do ar­rive, the people design­ing to­mor­row’s cars prom­ise they’ll be safer, cheap­er, and more ef­fi­cient once they no longer need someone at the helm.

SAFETY

The first thing every driver­less-car ad­voc­ate brings up is the tech­no­logy’s safety be­ne­fits. A full 90 per­cent of ac­ci­dents, they love to say, are a res­ult of hu­man er­ror. Ro­bot cars don’t lose fo­cus or get sleepy, they re­act in mil­li­seconds, and they have eyes in the back of their head. “One of the things com­puters are really good at is do­ing stuff re­pet­it­ively, con­stantly re­peat­ing these scen­ari­os,” Ford’s Greg Stevens said.

And while ro­bot cars today can mon­it­or their sur­round­ings mil­lions of times per second, they’ll be­come even more safe once the tech­no­logy be­comes more wide­spread. Today’s driver­less cars op­er­ate on re­ac­tion and pre­dic­tion. Ford is work­ing with MIT, Stevens said, to “build mod­els for those vehicles around us and those people around us. About where they might move so that we have prob­ab­il­it­ies for where they end up.” The tech­no­logy will learn the cap­ab­il­it­ies of the cars around it, de­tect clues from the way they’re driv­ing, and factor in en­vir­on­ment­al factors like up­com­ing exits.

As more autonom­ous cars hit the road, they will be­gin to com­mu­nic­ate and tell each oth­er where they’re go­ing. Rather than see­ing and pre­dict­ing, cars will be get­ting con­stant up­dates on where sur­round­ing traffic is plan­ning to move. “There will be more of a role in the fu­ture for an­onym­ized, ag­greg­ated data,” Mc­Cul­lough said. “This data will help get every­body a pic­ture of what’s go­ing on.”

Cars will also be­gin shar­ing in­form­a­tion about their sur­round­ings. If, for in­stance, a sink­hole opened up a mile down the road, your car would know that al­most in­stantly, reroute, and hop off the next exit in seconds. “You would have a huge num­ber of cars that could give real-time in­form­a­tion,” Stertz said. “Right now we use prim­it­ive tools for that. You’re get­ting old in­form­a­tion.”

As the cars mon­it­or the road, they’ll also be keep­ing an eye on their oc­cu­pants. If a driver has a heart at­tack or passes out, the car can safely pull to the side and call for help. And if a crash does oc­cur, the car can im­me­di­ately no­ti­fy emer­gency per­son­nel, telling them im­pact speed, loc­a­tion and the con­di­tion of pas­sen­gers.

Fur­ther down the road, autonom­ous cars could help put an end to in­tox­ic­ated driv­ing. Cur­rent rules gen­er­ally re­quire drivers to be be­hind the wheel, alert, and ready to take over at any time. And auto­makers are hes­it­ant to sug­gest their tech­no­logy could al­low people to overim­bibe. But as the tech­no­logy ad­vances, it could one day provide a fail-safe if the driver can’t handle the vehicle safely. “There are some com­plic­ated leg­al ques­tions around it, but I cer­tainly think it’s a pos­sib­il­ity,” Mc­Cul­lough said.

EF­FI­CIENCY

Of course, the first pitch to con­sumers will in­clude the time cur­rently lost to traffic jams and long com­mutes. That could be a thing of the past. While car own­ers won’t be able to nap in the back­seat just yet, car­makers want them to be able to be pro­duct­ive on an oth­er­wise wasted com­mute.

Not only will time spent in the car be more pro­duct­ive, it will de­crease al­to­geth­er. Mc­Cul­lough cited the “ac­cor­di­on ef­fect” — drivers rub­ber­neck­ing, re­act­ing to oth­ers’ er­rat­ic be­ha­vi­or, and com­pound­ing bad situ­ations. Minus the hu­man ele­ment, traffic will flow much more smoothly. Even if 10 per­cent of vehicles are autonom­ous, she said, traffic will im­prove drastic­ally.

As cars get bet­ter at hand­ling traffic situ­ations, many think they’ll be­gin to speed up as well. Rais­ing speed lim­its “de­pends on the politi­cians,” Stertz said, “but i think it’s a le­git­im­ate top­ic for dis­cus­sion…. It’s one of the things that’s worth reex­amin­ing when the cars are able to show they can help with the safety is­sue.”

After your com­mute through traffic is taken care of, your car will be able to handle park­ing as well, drop­ping you off at the front of your of­fice — or, say, a sports sta­di­um — then driv­ing off to find a park­ing spot on its own. All in all, “they’re go­ing to move people more quickly from one place to an­oth­er,” Mc­Cul­lough said.

SAV­INGS

The more su­per-safe cars take the road, the easi­er it will be for city plan­ners. Autonom­ous vehicles, at least ac­cord­ing to one study, will be able to safely drive just feet from each oth­er, quad­rupling high­way ca­pa­city. “It would make it easi­er on mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies to plan for and pay for road in­fra­struc­ture,” Mc­Cul­lough said.

The sav­ings won’t just be lim­ited to loc­al gov­ern­ments. As cars take more ef­fi­cient routes and spend less time id­ling in traffic, their own­ers will cut back on their fuel con­sump­tion. “Smooth­er traffic flows and less time stuck in traffic [res­ult in] sav­ings for the driver,” Stertz said.

That’s also good for the en­vir­on­ment. “The amount of fuel that can be saved, the amount of car­bon emis­sions that can be saved … I think we are be­gin­ning to see that,” Mc­Cul­lough said. “The en­vir­on­ment­al aware­ness is be­gin­ning to grow.”

We don’t know just when all of these be­ne­fits will be real­ized. Some of them may come well be­fore oth­ers. And a lot of it will de­pend on gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions. But auto­makers em­phas­ize that their autonom­ous cars won’t hit the road un­til they’re ready to deal with all as­pects of driv­ing. “What our en­gin­eers tell us is that these sys­tems “¦ have to be fool­proof,” said BMW’s Dave Buch­ko. “They have to be able to handle any situ­ation.”

SAFETY

The first thing every driver­less-car ad­voc­ate brings up is the tech­no­logy’s safety be­ne­fits. A full 90 per­cent of ac­ci­dents, they love to say, are a res­ult of hu­man er­ror. Ro­bot cars don’t lose fo­cus or get sleepy, they re­act in mil­li­seconds, and they have eyes in the back of their head. “One of the things com­puters are really good at is do­ing stuff re­pet­it­ively, con­stantly re­peat­ing these scen­ari­os,” Ford’s Greg Stevens said.

And while ro­bot cars today can mon­it­or their sur­round­ings mil­lions of times per second, they’ll be­come even more safe once the tech­no­logy be­comes more wide­spread. Today’s driver­less cars op­er­ate on re­ac­tion and pre­dic­tion. Ford is work­ing with MIT, Stevens said, to “build mod­els for those vehicles around us and those people around us. About where they might move so that we have prob­ab­il­it­ies for where they end up.” The tech­no­logy will learn the cap­ab­il­it­ies of the cars around it, de­tect clues from the way they’re driv­ing, and factor in en­vir­on­ment­al factors like up­com­ing exits.

As more autonom­ous cars hit the road, they will be­gin to com­mu­nic­ate and tell each oth­er where they’re go­ing. Rather than see­ing and pre­dict­ing, cars will be get­ting con­stant up­dates on where sur­round­ing traffic is plan­ning to move. “There will be more of a role in the fu­ture for an­onym­ized, ag­greg­ated data,” Mc­Cul­lough said. “This data will help get every­body a pic­ture of what’s go­ing on.”

Cars will also be­gin shar­ing in­form­a­tion about their sur­round­ings. If, for in­stance, a sink­hole opened up a mile down the road, your car would know that al­most in­stantly, reroute, and hop off the next exit in seconds. “You would have a huge num­ber of cars that could give real-time in­form­a­tion,” Stertz said. “Right now we use prim­it­ive tools for that. You’re get­ting old in­form­a­tion.”

As the cars mon­it­or the road, they’ll also be keep­ing an eye on their oc­cu­pants. If a driver has a heart at­tack or passes out, the car can safely pull to the side and call for help. And if a crash does oc­cur, the car can im­me­di­ately no­ti­fy emer­gency per­son­nel, telling them im­pact speed, loc­a­tion and the con­di­tion of pas­sen­gers.

Fur­ther down the road, autonom­ous cars could help put an end to in­tox­ic­ated driv­ing. Cur­rent rules gen­er­ally re­quire drivers to be be­hind the wheel, alert, and ready to take over at any time. And auto­makers are hes­it­ant to sug­gest their tech­no­logy could al­low people to overim­bibe. But as the tech­no­logy ad­vances, it could one day provide a fail-safe if the driver can’t handle the vehicle safely. “There are some com­plic­ated leg­al ques­tions around it, but I cer­tainly think it’s a pos­sib­il­ity,” Mc­Cul­lough said.

EFFICIENCY

Of course, the first pitch to con­sumers will in­clude the time cur­rently lost to traffic jams and long com­mutes. That could be a thing of the past. While car own­ers won’t be able to nap in the back­seat just yet, car­makers want them to be able to be pro­duct­ive on an oth­er­wise wasted com­mute.

Not only will time spent in the car be more pro­duct­ive, it will de­crease al­to­geth­er. Mc­Cul­lough cited the “ac­cor­di­on ef­fect” — drivers rub­ber­neck­ing, re­act­ing to oth­ers’ er­rat­ic be­ha­vi­or, and com­pound­ing bad situ­ations. Minus the hu­man ele­ment, traffic will flow much more smoothly. Even if 10 per­cent of vehicles are autonom­ous, she said, traffic will im­prove drastic­ally.

As cars get bet­ter at hand­ling traffic situ­ations, many think they’ll be­gin to speed up as well. Rais­ing speed lim­its “de­pends on the politi­cians,” Stertz said, “but i think it’s a le­git­im­ate top­ic for dis­cus­sion…. It’s one of the things that’s worth reex­amin­ing when the cars are able to show they can help with the safety is­sue.”

After your com­mute through traffic is taken care of, your car will be able to handle park­ing as well, drop­ping you off at the front of your of­fice — or, say, a sports sta­di­um — then driv­ing off to find a park­ing spot on its own. All in all, “they’re go­ing to move people more quickly from one place to an­oth­er,” Mc­Cul­lough said.

SAVINGS

The more su­per-safe cars take the road, the easi­er it will be for city plan­ners. Autonom­ous vehicles, at least ac­cord­ing to one study, will be able to safely drive just feet from each oth­er, quad­rupling high­way ca­pa­city. “It would make it easi­er on mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies to plan for and pay for road in­fra­struc­ture,” Mc­Cul­lough said.

The sav­ings won’t just be lim­ited to loc­al gov­ern­ments. As cars take more ef­fi­cient routes and spend less time id­ling in traffic, their own­ers will cut back on their fuel con­sump­tion. “Smooth­er traffic flows and less time stuck in traffic [res­ult in] sav­ings for the driver,” Stertz said.

That’s also good for the en­vir­on­ment. “The amount of fuel that can be saved, the amount of car­bon emis­sions that can be saved … I think we are be­gin­ning to see that,” Mc­Cul­lough said. “The en­vir­on­ment­al aware­ness is be­gin­ning to grow.”

We don’t know just when all of these be­ne­fits will be real­ized. Some of them may come well be­fore oth­ers. And a lot of it will de­pend on gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions. But auto­makers em­phas­ize that their autonom­ous cars won’t hit the road un­til they’re ready to deal with all as­pects of driv­ing. “What our en­gin­eers tell us is that these sys­tems “¦ have to be fool­proof,” said BMW’s Dave Buch­ko. “They have to be able to handle any situ­ation.”

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
ARE YOU THE GATEKEEPER?
Sanders: Obama Is a Progressive
1 days ago
THE LATEST

“Do I think President Obama is a progressive? Yeah, I do,” said Bernie Sanders, in response to a direct question in tonight’s debate. “I think they’ve done a great job.” But Hillary Clinton wasn’t content to sit out the latest chapter in the great debate over the definition of progressivism. “In your definition, with you being the gatekeeper of progressivism, I don’t think anyone else fits that definition,” she told Sanders.

×