Moyan BrennNatalie Keir marvels at the rapid development of self-driving cars.

Oh what I wouldn’t give to have a car that would drive itself. I would just recline nonchalantly in a plush leather seat, sip a coffee and let the journey go by. That would be the day. Except they already exist…and they are road legal.

It seems that these fantastic electronic marvels managed to creep onto the scene rather elusively. There hasn’t been much hype and only a few major publications have covered the subject. This has probably got a lot to do with the human race’s intrinsic tendency to steer clear of such futuristic and seemingly nonsense concepts. But it is far from nonsense, and it could save millions of lives a year.

Okay now prepare yourself for some serious stats:
Car accidents are the fifth most common cause of death worldwide;
In the US there were 5.5 million motor vehicle accidents in 2009;
These accidents killed 33,808 people and injured more than 2.2 million;
The total cost of these accidents amount to about $450 billion.

These facts paint a pretty grim picture. So how can driverless cars help? Google, the developers of the self-driving cars, have estimated that the cars could reduce traffic accidents, wasted commuter time and energy and the number of cars on the road by 90%. That all adds up to the one golden statistic that states that the Google car could save 30,000 lives in the US each year. That’s about twice the population of St Andrews. Google envisions that that car would not only be used by members of the public, but also by corporations as communal company cars. The cars could effectively be used as taxis. Say you finished your meeting early and need a lift back to your office. Using an app on your phone you could notify a local self-driving car depot that you require a lift, and the driverless car would whizz round, pick you up and take you to where you need to go. If this concept was expanded to use by the public, expenses and energy usage would be reduced significantly. For most people their car is the second largest investment in their lifetime, yet the average person only uses their car 5% of the time. Using these communal cars would make life a lot easier and also cheaper. A typical taxi fee in New York City is $8 – $15 for a two mile fare, but it is predicted that a similar journey in one of the communal self-drivers would be 80 cents. Not bad.  Using communal cars may not seem glamorous but it would certainly save time and money.

So in theory this all sounds pretty miraculous, but you don’t have to delve too deep to find potential problems such as, do they actually work well? It is one thing to have a car that can navigate a test-style street that has no meandering pedestrians and no other drivers, but is quite another to develop a car that can deal with unexpected situations as well as a human can. Well, Google being Google have developed the mother of all driving systems. Their car has driven 140,000 miles without an accident, which is a better record than most drivers I know. So how about the difficulty in incorporating the cars into everyday use? Well the average time taken for an entirely new fleet of cars to hit the road in a western country is about 15 years, so that can be predicted pretty accurately and easily. What about China and other developing economic powers? Although there are a huge number of cars on the road in countries like China, the ratio of people to cars is much lower, which means there is more scope for rapid change. Well luckily for Google, there is a nifty little trick called the ‘Leapfrog’. In India, such an occurrence took place within the telecommunications industry. By the time the Indian economy had developed enough to encompass telecommunications, mobile telephone technology was already well developed and relatively cheap. As a result India ‘leapfrogged’ the landline palaver and headed straight for mobile phone usage. A similar process could happen in the motor industry. China intends to spend $800 billion on road and highway construction before 2015, so what is to stop them leapfrogging our archaic human driven cars? When you consider that self-driven cars would effectively eradicate the crippling congestion, pollution and accident problems they experience, it would certainly be a wise move.

There are of course teething problems that Google will need to work through. One major issue will be the unavoidable decline of certain industries. Body shops, steel manufacturers and insurance companies will all suffer. Who needs a body shop when cars don’t collide? Who needs high quality steel when there are no impacts to quash? And who needs insurance when there are barely any accidents, none of which will ever be your fault. There will inevitably be a lot of opposition from Unions representing employees in these industries. In addition to these obstacles, there is the likely resistance from car companies. Will car manufacturers be willing to take sole responsibility for the safety of their passengers? If there is no human error, there will definitely be more law suits, and if it can be proven that a person’s death was 100% due to faulty electronics, there is not much a manufacturer can do about it.

So how soon will we be faced with these phenomena? Well, sooner than you might think. In 2008, self-driving cars could travel 2 blocks of a closed course at 25mph. In 2012 they could travel in everyday conditions at 75 mph for 140,000 miles. The rate of development seems exponential, so by 2020 anything could happen.


Natalie Keir


Image by Moyan Brenn