How Driverless Cars Will Take Over Roads, Hearts And Minds

Most drivers fear driverless cars, but those fears will subside as autonomous features debut in cars piloted by humans, a panel of transportation experts agreed in Chicago Friday. The driverless takeover will be so gradual, they suggested, we'll hardly notice it.
"I think what we’re likely to see in the next 10 to 15 years is more of a boil-the-frog scenario," said Sam Van Hecke, an associate at the transportation planning firm Cambridge Systematics. "We’ll become more comfortable with it as it becomes more of a societal norm."
And that transition is underway, as evidenced by this viral video of a driver napping as his Tesla manages stop-and-go traffic on Autopilot:
"I think we’re going to start getting more comfortable with driver assistance in our personal vehicles," Van Hecke said at the Transport Chicago conference at the University of Illinois, Chicago. "We’re going to become comfortable with our cars steering for us. We’re already comfortable with the idea of our cars setting our speed for us and maintaining that speed and in some cases changing that speed when necessary."
A recent survey by the American Automobile Association found that 75 percent of drivers are afraid to get into a driverless car. 80 percent said they don't trust them.
But the AAA survey also found that drivers who already have semi‐autonomous technology in their vehicles are more likely to trust autonomous technology. It also found that older drivers fear driverless cars more than younger drivers do.
"We’re not going to wake up one day and it’s going to be all autonomous vehicles," said Jonathon Hart, a principal planner with the civil engineering firm CDM Smith. "We’re going to be operating in a mixed environment for a long time to come, and it’s going to be a generational thing."
While older drivers may equate car ownership with freedom, that sentiment seems to be weakening among young people, as evidenced by the oft-repeated notion that millennials shun car ownership.
"Things that we take for granted—that this is a freedom—may seem a burden to the next generation," Hart said. You might not prefer a shared autonomous vehicle to driving your own car, "but your kids might, and your kids’ kids probably will."
Your kids' kids probably will adopt autonomous technology not just because it will be more familiar, but also because its benefits will be more evident. Driverless cars could save an estimated $1 trillion per year. They have the potential to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, traffic congestion, parking demand, insurance costs and traffic fatalities. They're expected to eliminate the 90 percent of traffic accidents attributed to human error.
"Safety is what makes this technology inevitable," said Chris Kopp, transportation group director at the planning firm HNTB. "This is how we get close to zero traffic deaths."
In the future, parents will have a choice: drive their kids to their activities or put them in a much safer autonomous vehicle.
"It’s safer than a human," Hart said. "It’s many times safer than a human. Am I going to put my kids in my car, or am I going to put my kids in a car that’s 200 percent safer than a human driver?"
If driverless cars are shared, the economics also make them look inevitable. The Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that shared driverless cars will cost 15¢ per mile to operate, compared to 60¢ for personal cars. Drivers will no longer have to buy or insure a vehicle that meets their most extreme needs—like room to haul heavy equipment or four-wheel drive for an occasional camping trip—because drivers will be able to order a shared vehicle suited to each task.
Shared driverless cars promise the greatest financial and environmental benefits, but it's this scenario that many drivers, accustomed to owning their own cars, find difficult to fathom. Nonetheless, the economics can be persuasive, and planners can design systems to encourage sharing.
"Ownership models I think are going to change," Hart said. "I think we’re going to be looking at a membership or a leasing type of agreement or a per-ride type of agreement. I think there will be many models. And sure, you could outright own one."
Hart believes we have about 15 years before driverless cars reach 50 percent penetration of the automobile market, based on how long it took other compelling safety innovations, like seatbelts, airbags, automatic braking systems and electronic stability control.
During that 15 years driverless cars will mix increasingly with cars piloted by humans, on streets plied by pedestrians, bicyclists, cats, dogs and squirrels. If anything could interrupt the driverless-car revolution, Van Hecke believes, it's bad press during that period.
"We don’t talk about the potential danger of getting into a random taxi," he said. But "if an autonomous vehicle, God forbid, hits and kills someone, that will be all over the newspapers. We will talk about it endlessly. Regardless of whether it may have prevented other accidents by being better than the typical driver, the topic de jour will be ‘killer cars.’"

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