Once the masses adopt a fully-connected self-driving car, the impact on how we live and work may be as transforming as the evolution from horse-and-buggy to motorized vehicle.
Consider the benefits: the elderly, visually-impaired and physically challenged being fully mobile; professionals such as lawyers enhancing productivity by working during the chokehold commute; a doctor assessing x-rays on the dashboard's touchscreen and delivering pre-operation instructions en route to the hospital; parents sending their children to-and-from school or a dog to the vet; all enabled by vehicles able to drive themselves.
Most profoundly, autonomous technology may save thousands of lives by making decisions on the road faster than humans are able.
"Cars can no longer be seen as a simple means of mobility, but rather for generating new values – first for energy management, second as a connected vehicle, and third for self-driving," Fumihiko Ike, chairman of Honda and the Japanese Automobile Manufacturing Association, said during a forum at the Tokyo Motor Show last year. "Self-driving technology has a huge potential to bring about zero accidents and reduce congestion."
With the median age of its population trending upward, Japan is aggressively urging auto makers to develop autonomous vehicles in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Similarly, aging baby boomers in North America will become increasingly mobility-challenged, especially in rural locations.
"One of TRI's explicit goals is to improve access to transportation in society," says professor Edwin Olson, of Toyota's $1-billion (U.S.) research institute, adding it will be accomplished "with systems that can be operated by people who are unable to operate a conventional vehicle. We are passionate about improving quality of life by improving everyone's mobility."
The various driver-assist measures would reduce accidents significantly – in theory. Currently, about 2,000 Canadians and 30,000 Americans die in car crashes each year. Distracted driving is the documented cause of 10 per cent of fatal accidents, though the actual number is possibly higher, Bloomberg reported.
Manufacturers would give the driver three options – full control, partial control with presently incorporated technology such as adaptive cruise control, or turning the car over completely to the computer and its sensors.
"More and more people are living in major cities around the world and densities keep going up and up, so … if you give me the option of using those 45 [commuting] minutes productively by getting a head start on e-mails or something else, I would probably do it," said Hans Blesse, BMW Group Canada president.
Ride-sharing services are already planning to deploy self-driving cars. Uber, which tested self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh, is striving to make ride-sharing so affordable and convenient that it becomes a legitimate alternative to car ownership, company founder Travis Kalanick told The Economist.
Conceivably, consumers will use their mobile phones to call for a self-driven, zero-emission, electrically-powered vehicle. Several commuters in Calgary could band together for a ride to the 17th Ave. C-Train station. In Burlington, Ont., they'd ferry together to a GO Transit station then train into Toronto. The cumulative effect would be to save fuel, reduce congestion, improve safety.
Aside from the safety and mobility aspects, AVs could take the drudgery out of the drive.
BMW's 7 Series has already incorporated gesture control, allowing the driver to control certain functions without touching the screen or knobs. Audi's redesigned A5 includes a second-generation infotainment platform that allows passengers to surf the Internet at high speed with their mobile devices, and an interface on the screen facilitates control of smartphones with the iOS or the Android operating system.
AV news dominated the Consumer Electronics Show show in January. Volvo partnered with Ericsson to develop smart HD streaming – the service will pick TV shows that can be watched within the time it takes to get from one place to another. Volkswagen showed a concept van with tech designed to let occupants play games and stream music directly from their smartphones. And BMW vectored the seats in a concept i8 by 15 degrees to facilitate conversation between passengers.
And while enhancing mobility and safety as a benefit to society, the consequence of mass acceptance of AVs may mean be fewer jobs for truck, bus and taxi drivers, personal-injury lawyers, insurers, automotive repair technicians and others.
Nonetheless, the technology is coming, sure as snow in winter.
"There's a whole lot of work to do still but people forget, when the internal combustion engine came out, you had to go buy gasoline at the pharmacy," Blesse said.
This is the fifth article in a seven-part multimedia series on self-driving cars that examines the past, the current technology and what the future may hold.