When I was 14 years old, I crashed my sister’s first car and almost totaled it, causing $11,000 worth of damage. I hopped in the driver’s seat and put the car in gear as a joke, while my sister stood next to the window. When the car started moving, I panicked and hit the gas, hitting 20 mph while my sister hung on to the driver’s door until she fell off and rolled on the street.
The car came to a stop only after hitting a small brick wall surrounding a tree, the only thing stopping me from driving straight into someone’s home right behind it. Miraculously, neither my sister nor I were seriously injured, but even thinking of what could’ve happened that day makes me shudder.
Of course, the accident was not a consequence of an inherent problem with automobiles themselves but merely my own incompetence. However, the fact that human error alone can cause so much destruction when operating vehicles is a frightening thought.
The notion of autonomous vehicles has always been a symbol of the future. I still remember the opening scene of The Incredibles, when Mr. Incredible is on his way to his wedding and hears of a high-speed police chase on the radio. He engages his vehicle’s pursuit setting, lets go of the steering wheel, and is changed into his superhero getup while his car avoids obstacles and travels at blistering speeds.
Although outfit-changing, rocket-powered automobiles aren’t likely to be available any time soon, driverless cars are developing quickly, and they will soon be widely implemented. A diverse range of companies have been researching the technology to make this notion a reality, from hardware and software giants Apple and Google to automakers like Ford and BMW and even taxi companies like Uber and Lyft. Although some are wary of the effects autonomous vehicles will have on our daily lives, both the economy and the individuals who utilize them will largely benefit from their implementation.
It would be a gross understatement to say that cars are dangerous. We let text messaging, drive-thru eating, make-up applying human beings operate two ton machines, starting at the age of 15 ½ in California. The consequences of these facts are hard to ignore – approximately 2 million hospital visits happen every year in America because of car accidents, according to an article by The Economist in 2012. These accidents have serious costs as well; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated in 2010 (the most recent data available) that the total cost of crashes was an absurd $242 billion.
In the same report, the number of fatalities and injuries due to traffic accidents stood at 35,092 and 2,443,000 respectively in 2015, an increase of 7.2 percent in fatalities and 4.5 percent in injuries from 2014. Because around 90 percent of accidents are caused by human error, taking humans out of the equation would undoubtedly save thousands of lives and billions of dollars in America alone.
Whenever machines take over human jobs, they are placed under greater scrutiny. We hold machines to a higher standard than human beings because machines are designed to do certain tasks. Thankfully, the autonomous vehicles we have are already much better at driving than people are.
Google, one of the frontrunners in the race, released reports from May 2015 to November 2016 detailing both the miles driven and the accidents their driverless vehicles were involved in. As of the most recent report, 2,344,188 autonomous miles have been driven, and within that timespan, every single accident reported has been caused by other drivers on the road.
After looking at how much safer they are, it seems like driverless cars are an easy sell and that only good could result from using them. However, there are some potentially negative effects that must be discussed, some obvious, and some that are more difficult.
The most popular fact that naysayers like to present is that trucking jobs will be lost. There is no denying it – one of the first industries that will be impacted greatly by these vehicles will be the freight industry, specifically the trucking sector. The industry at large will have much to gain from this, but it will be largely due to eliminating the wages of truck drivers.
The American Trucking Association reported that approximately three million truck drivers are employed by the industry. However, they also reported that there is a shortage of 25,000 truck drivers because of the kind of work that they must do. They spend long hours away from their families, and sitting for extended periods of time in a truck surely has negative effects on health.
Also, although trucking jobs will be lost, with the great impact autonomous vehicles will have on the economy (estimated at $0.2 trillion to $1.9 trillion by 2025, according to McKinsey) new jobs will inevitably be created, such as in maintaining and testing the new technology. Although these jobs would require higher skill sets, they would also be higher paying. Consumers of the goods that are being transported will benefit as well, because not having to worry about hiring and paying drivers means that more freight can be sent out more efficiently.
Another consideration that is often overlooked is that the medical industry will also be impacted in different ways. A large amount of organs donated to those in need are a result of fatal car accidents, and if the number of these accidents is lowered, more people who are waiting for transplants will die before organs become available.
This is a difficult subject, because any advance in technology that will lead to the loss of some life must be thoroughly considered; but like the freight industry, the positives highly outweigh the negatives. Yes, more people in need of transplants will die, but significantly more will be saved from death and serious injury if accidents caused by human error become a thing of the past. The other way the industry will be affected by autonomous vehicles is the reduction in revenue for hospitals and other health-care providers.
However, even if crashes are reduced by 90 percent, the industry will take a hit of only $20.7 billion according to the NHTSA, which is minuscule when compared to the $1 trillion in total revenue of hospital care in 2016, according to Plunkett Research. Also, with less staff and resources allocated to deal with such a great number of accidents, hospitals can focus more on tackling other problems that are not just consequences of human error, like cancer and congenital disease.
Driverless cars will definitely impact the lives of countless individuals, and the socioeconomic effects they will have must be discussed given how close we are to their implementation. However, the most important considerations were discussed here, and it seems apparent that they will enable us to live safer, more efficient lives. Regardless of one’s stance on the subject, what can’t be denied is that the introduction of autonomous cars will be consequential. We’ll be one step closer to outfit-changing, rocket-powered autonomous vehicles.