Self-driving cars could cut crash and road injury rates by 90-percent and save the US economy by around $450bn each year, a new thinktank report suggests, though the technology risks being hamstrung by expensive components and a "disparate patchwork" of regulations. The independent research by the Eno Center for Transportation into autonomous vehicles such as Google's self-driving cars and similar projects from Nissan, Toyota, Mercedes and others argues that, since driver error is calculated to be the primary reason behind more than 90-percent of crashes, removing humans from their responsibility behind the wheel could save a huge amount of lives and money.
For instance, the research group highlights, more than 40-percent of fatal crashes in the US involve alcohol, distraction, the involvement of drugs, and/or fatigue, all "human failings" that an autonomous car would not suffer from. "Even when the critical reason behind a crash is attributed to the vehicle, roadway or environment," the Eno Center continues, "additional human factors such as inattention, distraction, or speeding are regularly found to have contributed to the crash occurrence and/or injury severity."
"AVs can be programmed to not break traffic laws. They do not drink and drive. Their reaction times are quicker and they can be optimized to smooth traffic flows, improve fuel economy, and reduce emissions" Eno Center
The penetration of self-driving cars will make a big difference to any potential savings, however, the group warns. With a 10-percent adoption rate, around 50-percent of crashes and injuries could be reduced; it would take a 90-percent adoption rate to push that up to 90-percent safer roads. At 10-percent adoption, annual economic benefits would be more like $25bn, the Eno Center says; again, it would take almost complete adoption to hit the headline $450bn annual saving.
However, the report also counters suggestions that autonomous vehicles will only make a difference to road conditions and safety if there is a wholesale switch to the self-driving technology. In fact, it's suggested, issues like road congestion could be alleviated if only 1-in-10 cars were self-driving. "If 10 percent of all vehicles on a given freeway segment are AVs," the Eno Center writes, "there will likely be an AV in every lane at regular spacing during congested times, which could smooth traffic for all travelers."
Nissan self-driving Leaf:
The overall benefits could also include getting traditionally mobility-penalized or at-risk drivers on the road in a safer way. As Nissan's R&D chief told us was a key application for self-driving cars, young drivers, the elderly, and disabled people are obvious user-groups for "on-demand taxi" style services, where driverless cars would be requested by a smartphone or other interface, and dispatched between multiple users.
"Preliminary results using an agent-based model for assigning vehicles around a region in combination with NHTS data indicate that a single shared AV could replace between nine and thirteen privately owned or household-owned vehicles, without compromising current travel patterns" Eno Center
On the flip-side, of course, is the potential economic and societal fall-out of replacing taxi and truck drivers with autonomous alternatives. The thinktank also suggests that there could be health penalties from a reduction in exercise, as people opt for a self-driving car ride rather than walking to their destination.
Overall, if we want to see these improvements, however, plenty needs to be done - both technologically and legislatively - to address the self-driving segment, the Eno Center concludes. The equipment required to make cars environmentally-aware is still too expensive, while different legislation across individual states is also leaving the regulatory landscape difficult to navigate.
"This new technology has the potential to reduce crashes, ease congestion, improve fuel economy, reduce parking needs, bring mobility to those unable to drive, and over time dramatically change the nature of U.S. travel" they conclude. "These impacts will have real and quantifiable benefits."