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15 Jan 14 07:06

By 2050, almost every car will be driverless, according to IHS' latest study “Emerging Technologies: Autonomous Cars—Not If, But When”. By 2035, IHS Automotive forecasts there should already be nearly 54 million self-driving cars (SDCs) in use globally ( So, should we be excited about driverless technology? What are the benefits and risks?

The concept is not new. Driverless systems have been developed since the 1920s. But the technology has come a long way: Last week Audi and BMW unveiled their latest driverless car technology at the Consumer Electronics Show and I have to say, while the technology still needs some work (check this CNN video, the potential is, in my view, totally awesome!

The benefits: Not only do will we all get to play Knight Rider, accident rates are expected to plunge to near zero as the share of SDCs grows. Traffic congestion and air pollution per car should also decline because SDCs can be programmed to be more efficient in their driving patterns. Moreover, autonomous vehicles have the potential to provide increased mobility for the elderly, the disabled and the blind. Fully autonomous cars might also improve land use: Currently, about 31% of city business districts of 41 major US cities is dedicated to parking. Autonomous vehicles would be able to drop passengers off, and then drive themselves to remote, satellite parking lots. In fact, we may even see a drop in car ownership and a rise in ride-sharing!

However, there are challenges too. Some are technical (making the systems 100% reliable, shrinking the technology to the size of a glove box, protecting internet-connected systems against hacking...) but experts seem to agree that the biggest challenge standing in the way of making SDCs a reality on our roads is legislation. Various laws will need to be updated around the world.

And of course, insurance and liability are particular tricky. If a car driving itself gets into an accident that results in damages or injuries, who is responsible? The driver watching a movie on the car entertainment system, or the manufacturer that designed the car? A recent RAND study looks recommends the following policy considerations:
-- Policymakers should avoid passing regulations prematurely while the technology is still evolving.
-- Distracted-driving laws will need to be updated to incorporate autonomous vehicle technology.
-- Policymakers should clarify who will own the data generated by this technology and how it will be used, and address privacy concerns.
-- Regulations and liability rules should be designed by comparing the performance of autonomous vehicles to that of average human drivers and the long-term benefits of the technology should be incorporated into determinations of liability.

But once those are sorted out, RAND believes the benefits of self-driving cars -- from increased safety to increased fuel economy -- will outweigh the challenges, concludes Smart Planet

Do you agree? Are you, like I am, eager to test the technology? Or are you concerned? Share your thoughts as comments below.

Read the full RAND study here:

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia: General Motors exhibit at Century 21 Exposition (World's Fair), Seattle, Washington, USA, 1962.,_1962.jpg

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Karthik Sampath - 15 Jan 2014, 1:18 p.m.

Great post Alicia! This has been on my radar for a long time. So here's my take.

Being a motorhead myself, it would hurt too see SDCs taking over our lives. We live to drive! Forget SDCs, I hate even automatic transmissions. Where's the fun? Life would get so boring to see people snoring away at the wheel on busy highways. This guy tried something different, to drive with his knees for a few seconds before being stopped by police! See what I mean?

You mentioned about road safety and how this could reduce accidents. You're probably right but it will only take one small computer glitch to cause a pile up. And not to mention the risk of terrorism. Now that's worrying. Very similar issues are plaguing pilotless commercial planes from taking off too. We have the technology but would you fly in a plane that's remote controlled?

And motor insurance is big business. Take Telematics in vehicles for instance. It has been introduced only recently to help insurers gather information on driving patterns and we're still debating on who owns the data. Many are uncomfortable with a device that tracks where we are all the time. It's an ethical question too. (See my previous post on too much personalisation in insurance: So will SDCs mean the end of motor insurance as we know it?

And what about the millions of bus drivers, cab drivers and tuk-tuk drivers dependent on their vehicles for their livelihood? Imagine the kind of uproar this would create in say a country like India where you have somebody to even fetch your parking ticket! By 2050 all cars driverless? Not in my lifetime!

Having sounded pessimistic about SDCs so far, I'm also cautiously optimistic (if implemented smartly) about the technology especially for India which has the highest road accident rate in the world. Yes, it would be a monumental challenge to get these cars on the road considering the assortment of traffic (which you've experienced first hand!), but if the road infrastructure can be sorted out, SDCs could help India leapfrog all the other challenges (just like Aadhaar

Eager to see where this discussion goes. :)


Alicia Montoya - 15 Jan 2014, 1:59 p.m.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I love driving too (and hate automatics)! But choosing WHEN you drive (yes on the gorgeous mountain road, not in the traffic jam, as the CNN video shows) would be awesome in my view. Even better, getting your car to then park itself somewhere where it's less in the way, freeing up valuable street space is brilliant!

As for the 'all the jobs lost' argument, well, the way I see it, that's never been a good reason not to advance/innovate. Those workers should/will find employment where they can add more value (and I'm sure they will eventually. In the long run, that's much better for a country's competitiveness than simply trying to keep employment numbers up!).

Finally, in terms of traffic in India, I had to laugh! One of the images that will stay with me of Bangalore was that, in the middle of the city's busiest roundabout, there was one cow, seemingly completely oblivious to the madness all around it of cars, rickshaws, people carrying fruit carts, donkeys, etc all swerving around it, honking madly! So yeah, for India, those driverless car sensors had better be cow and rickshaw-proof, AND be programmed to deal with mad, random objects around them!! ;)

On a more serious note, I think it's great to have the technology but I would not have a vehicle without a driver, I'd use the tech to assist the driver and improve space usage. But maybe I'm just being a luddite and kids will laugh at me in 10 years time! :)

Jennifer Rodney - 15 Jan 2014, 2:22 p.m.

You guys may have seen this video making the rounds already, and this comment is not a serious contribution to the conversation, but the questioning of innovation (which I do think is important - I'm all for critical thinking) made me think if this fun clip about quashing new ideas/technologies:

I have to imagine many of the technologies we take for granted today raised loads of concerns or at least questions when they were first proposed.

Alicia Montoya - 15 Jan 2014, 2:35 p.m.


TerryCRG - 16 Jan 2014, 11:43 p.m.

It is hard to believe that SDC will make a massive impact on the general car population but it does follow the pattern of Gen-Yers preference to share and not own. With cars spending 90% of their time in paid parking, we do not need cars we just need to get from A to B. I do think however that insurance will be one of the biggest factors, the liability issues are significant. Great post Alicia and +1 for stick shift.

Jayne Plunkett - 19 Jan 2014, 10:05 a.m.

Thanks Alicia. Many studies have shown that human error is a contributing factor in some 90% of car accidents. Even with a few glitches, I am convinced the computers will drive the car better than we do!

Daniel Martin Eckhart - 22 Jan 2014, 3:07 p.m.

Good post, Alicia - that's what I'm waiting for - I want one! And of course I want it solar-powered, too. There's no doubt on my mind that this is the future. Near future, that is! Concerns will be dealt with as there are so many clear benefits - and technology will be ready long before concerns are dealt with. Bring it on.

Fabrizio Carenzi - 16 Feb 2014, 2:47 p.m.

I see the points that Karthik raised, but I think that this new technology has much more pros than cons.
Human drivers are unreliable, even though more “flexible” - at least for the moment – in coping with the uncertainties that one have to face when driving.
But in general, machines do it better – the majority of the emergency systems in high-hazard facilities are automatic, and rightfully so! In fact, the majority of the accidents involving technologies are man-made (just give me one good example to prove otherwise). There’s a lot of stuff about human errors/human reliability assessment tools, and so on.
Don’t’ get me wrong: I ride a motorbike (a real bike! no automatic gear! But with ABS), and I enjoy it. But I don’t use it for commuting (I “think safe”), and I would feel a lot safer surrounded by cold, boring but reliable robot-cars.
Maybe there will be the possibility to override the “autopilot” when the traffic conditions let do that – and, honestly, who really enjoys driving in the traffic??

TerryCRG - 28 Feb 2014, 8:40 p.m.

Interesting article, nothing new but growing talk of driver-less cars hurting insurers. Do n't see it myself anytime soon

Alicia Montoya - 31 Jul 2014, 6:33 a.m.

Great news! The UK government has just announced that it will allow driverless cars on public roads in less than six months! So far, concerns about legal and insurance issues had restricted the machines to private roads. UK ministers have ordered a review of the UK's road regulations to provide appropriate guidelines.

Testing of autonomous vehicles has been taking place across the globe, in places like Sweden, the US and Japan, with reasonable results so far when it comes to the technology.

The debate now is whether to allow cars like Google's to abandon controls including a steering wheel and pedals and rely on the vehicle's computer... Or whether to allow the machine to drive, but insist a passenger be ready to wrest back control at a moment's notice.

Are you concerned? Or do you welcome the move?

Here's the story:

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