Our economy will be severely impacted as millions of lorry drivers, cabbies and delivery people are put out of work. In this era of endless innovation, humanity’s century-long relationship with the automobile is about to be permanently disrupted. The reason has nothing to do with millennials, Uber or improvements in mass transport. Driving should and will be made illegal because we now have the technology to prevent deadly traffic accidents, one of the greatest causes of premature deaths.
More than 1.2 million people are killed in car accidents each year. Last year, more than 275,000
Chinese, 238,000 Indians and 36,000 Americans died in preventable traffic accidents. Since Ralph Nader first took on the car industry by publishing Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965, auto-mobile manufacturers have radically improved the safety and reliability of their vehicles. Seatbelts, airbags, anti-lock brakes, as well as tyre-pressure-monitoring, have all reduced traffic deaths. But, until now, makers were unable to deal with the single biggest cause of fatalities: human error. We now have the technology to save millions of lives, but does society have the willpower to mandate its use?
Google’s autonomous vehicles have logged 1.5 million kilometres on roads dominated by human-driven cars. Subjected to the same real-world conditions as us mere mortals, self-driving cars have been through rain, sleet and snow. These vehicles have driven the equivalent of circumnavigating the globe 40 times, without incident. In July, Google reported 14 minor road accidents in total – but in all of the cases blamed human error. According to the data, human-driver error is responsible for 94 per cent of all crashes.
And regardless of the amount of education or training, human behaviour behind the wheel is not improving. Alcohol is responsible for a third of all traffic-related deaths worldwide. In the US, one out of four accidents is caused by texting and driving (six times likelier to cause an accident than driving drunk). The more technology we put in human hands, the worse our driving becomes. And, unlike robots, humans need rest.
Autonomous vehicles don’t drive drunk, don’t drive distracted and don’t fall asleep at the wheel. Self-driving cars are wired with cameras, infrared sensors, networkedmaps and a host of software that empower them to avoid dangers accurately in ways humans cannot. They can brake faster, swerve more quickly and anticipate changes in road conditions that are imperceptible to the human eye (such as obstacles beyond the range of headlights).Robots are also able to communicate with one another more efficiently and effectively than do we humans. Imagine Waze for robotic vehicles: software guiding millions of drivers at optimal speeds, reducing congestion, shortening commutes and eliminating the need for costly public road-expansion projects.
Elon Musk said: “People may outlaw driving cars because it’s too dangerous.” With two billion vehicles on the roads, a full transition to autonomous vehicles will take two decades. But, according to the Eno Center for Transportation, even partial penetration will save 21,000 lives a year in the US alone. We should work on making human driving illegal by 2030 as if our lives depended on it, because 18 million people’s lives actually do.
Jay Samit is an entrepreneur and author of Disrupt Yourself. This article was first published in the January 18th 2016 issue of Wired Magazine UK.