WHEN the man behind the Segway, the battery-powered personal mobility scooter, died after riding one of his products off a cliff, it seemed like a grim end to yet another transport fad. After the Sinclair C5, the hovercraft, the poweriser and the Segway, it’s easy to be sceptical about the next sci-fi “leap” in transportation.
But Google’s driverless cars, which the tech giant announced yesterday that it would start building itself, might be different. As sci-fi leaps go, they’re certainly far-fetched. But so far, the signs are that they might actually work and make it to market. And if they do, they could make a big difference to our lives.
So far, Google’s cars have driven around 700,000 miles, which is a little bit less than two trips to the moon and back again, or 29 trips around the world. In all that time, they have been involved in only two crashes – once when the car was being driven manually by a human driver, another when an automatically-driven car was rear-ended at a junction.
All the suggestions are that driverless cars would be much, much safer than human-driven cars – Google estimates that replacing all cars on the roads with driverless equivalents would eliminate at least 90 per cent of automobile accidents. To put that in perspective, every year 1.24m people die in road traffic accidents around the world, compared to 627,000 from malaria. Even if driverless cars were only able to prevent half of all accidents, they could be as good for humanity as a cure for malaria.
And that’s just the start. Instead of spending 90 minutes driving in and out of work each day, commuters will be able to catch up with a newspaper and a cup of coffee while their car drives for them. Or by working remotely for those 90 minutes, a 9 to 5 employee could increase their daily earnings by 20 per cent.
Coordinating with each other remotely, driverless cars will be able to avoid other traffic, maybe ending congestion entirely. Cars are parked for 98 per cent of their lives: to exploit that, driverless car owners could turn their vehicles into taxis while they’re at work, drastically reducing costs for everyone. Eat your heart out, Uber.
One third of transportation costs are labour costs, which will be eliminated entirely, and driverless lorries will be able to travel non-stop, making goods transportation much cheaper. Driverless freight transport may eventually outcompete rail on time and price entirely, especially if driverless-only highways are built that allow for much faster speeds, making railroads entirely redundant. Someday, railway projects like HS2 might look as anachronistic as a 1980s-built National Fax Machine Network would seem today.
These advances raise difficult questions. Will the government ban human-controlled cars on safety grounds? What will happen to the professional drivers whose jobs will be eliminated, not to mention the car insurance industry? If your car can avoid a crash that would kill several other people by swerving to kill you instead, what should it do? And, if you do crash, who is liable – you, or Google?
All these questions will need to be answered. But one thing’s for sure: as long as Sergey Brin doesn’t roll off a cliff in one, driverless cars will change the way we live.
Sam Bowman is research director at the Adam Smith Institute. @s8mb
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