A driver sits engrossed in her laptop screen, catching up on emails as the car barrels down the highway. In the next lane, a father helps his kids finish homework while their vehicle swiftly changes lanes.
Nearby, an empty car returns home after dropping off its owner.—
These are the self-driving cars in which humans can be mindlessly commuting in as few as five years, some ambitious estimates claim.
“It’s a highly disruptive technology that’s coming on a lot faster than people expect,” says Barrie Kirk, executive director of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence.
He helps governments and companies prepare for the advent of automated vehicles.
Many automakers and tech firms have already entered the driverless car manufacturing game. Now it’s a race to perfect the technology and start selling these Knight Rider-style vehicles.
Companies hype the cars as the best safety feature since seatbelts and airbags, but there’s a sense that phasing driverless cars onto public roads may be anything but a smooth transition.
Self-driving car advocates, like Kirk, believe in the technology’s potential to save thousands of lives.
“Humans, generally, are poor drivers,” he says. He would like to see human drivers banned from roads to make room for an all-automated-vehicle world.
Drivers’ mistakes are responsible for more than 90 per cent of crashes, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found.
Kirk hopes automated vehicles can eliminate 80 per cent of such collisions — a number often cited by advocates.
In 2012, 2,077 people died in car crashes on Canadian roads, according to Transport Canada. If Kirk’s estimate holds, about 1,500 of those victims could have avoided an accident.
“If you’re got a whole bunch of sensors that give you a 360-degree scan, 30 times a second,” he says, “humans can not come anywhere close to that.”
There will be time to adjust before the new fleet of robot cars takes over roads.
“We’re not going to be in a situation where we go from no automation to fully autonomous or self-driving vehicles,” says David Adams, president of the Global Automakers of Canada.
Some people already own low-level autonomous vehicles, like ones that parallel park once the driver has properly aligned it. Some U.K. cities have started experimenting with low-speed self-driving shuttles on closed streets.
Even if safety is somewhat disputed, there are other potential benefits that can make the pursuit of these cars worth it.
Seniors, disabled people and others unable to drive will gain mobility. Families may need to own fewer cars if vehicles can travel empty to pick up and drop off family members.
Cities may require fewer parking spaces if cars can return home after dropping off owners.
But to see all those benefits and ensure safety isn’t compromised, these cars must be carefully brought into the public realm, says Shladover.
“It has to be done in a sensible way.”
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