The new road rage — driverless cars?

Situation

Automobiles have never evolved as quickly as within the last generation of drivers. According to Businessweek, the demand for intelligent transportation systems has grown into a $48 billion industry in the US alone. Many standard cars now come with cruise control and self-parking technology, and when was the last time you actually rolled up a window? These changes have been designed with the human driver in mind but due to rapid changes in technology, demographics and psychology, the first driverless vehicles should be fairly common by 2020 — only seven years away!

Why should the shift to driverless vehicles happen now?

Partly due to an aging population, a focus on the physically impaired, and the evidence that younger people are increasingly reluctant to drive, there is an increasing demand for cars that will allow people to remain independent and mobile without having to worry about their driving performance. As self-parking systems, crash-avoidance systems and telematics have spread, more people are prepared to give up control of the steering wheel. As improved GPS technology, lasers, radar, cameras, and more powerful and less expensive computers are developed, these vehicles will be cost-effective. A few years ago I attended a Harvey Nash Leadership Lecture where I first learned of the work done by Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Audi in Europe. I was amazed by learning of human passengers in a modified BMW driving itself on a track at 75 MPH and slowing down to 40 MPH for an S-curve. Now cars by Ford and Cadillac are being tested as well as Google’s modified Prius, which has already driven itself over 300,000 miles in normal traffic.

A major legal issue is safety standards for the new vehicles, with California and Nevada taking the lead. It’s expected that the first cars will be manually driven until they reach designated “self-driving zones” when the “autopilot” will take over.

Pros

Some of the benefits of these vehicles should include safety, since 60 percent of traffic deaths are blamed upon human error. Savings of time: these vehicles would keep track of each other to maintain speed with minimum distance between them and automatically reroute to less congested routes when necessary. Convenience: imagine leaving your car at the entrance of a parking garage, and it would park (and retrieve) itself? What about having it drive you to the airport and then driving itself back to your driveway until you arrived back? Efficiency: apparently the average car is idle for about 96 percent of the time so self-driving cars could drive you to work, then drive back to your home to drop off the children at school — eliminating the need for a second car.

Cost savings

By allowing cars to drive with “robotic precision,” they could be traveling closer together, according to Google’s Driverless Cars program, and allow our current highways to handle two or three times as many cars without widening existing roads.

Productivity

Automobile interiors will be redesigned to be as passive an experience as riding on a train is, while the occupants will be free to devote their attention to work or study as they commute. This increase in productivity could make a positive impact on the economy just as personal computing, e-mail and the Internet led to gains in the nation’s GDP.

Cons

These vehicles will pose a critical threat to the profitability of the insurance and advertising industries. If the cars reduce or eliminate car accidents, do you still need collision insurance? Insurance companies are a $180 billion business with GEICO alone doing about $1 billion in advertising each year. What happens if a “driverless car” crashes — who’s responsible? What about potential threats with viruses, malware, electromagnetic pulses by terrorists? And what about your privacy? These cars will track the user’s every movement. What of the need for taxi, bus, and truck drivers?

Bottom-line

These scenarios are already evolving and just waiting for consumer acceptance. Will you be the first on your block to get one?