When the Segway was introduced more than a decade ago, it was hyped as launching a transportation revolution. As Steve Jobs supposedly put it, “If enough people see the machine you won’t have to convince them to architect cities around it. It’ll just happen. And Dean Kamen himself said “Segway will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.”
Well, no. It looks just possible that the next stage in personal mobility will be the automated automobile. The Economist points out that Google co-founder Sergey Brin, “predicts that driverless cars will be ready for sale to customers within five years.” But whether five years or ten years, it looks like the vehicles may well be coming fast down the road. And here is how it all might play out, according to the magazine:
1. As sensors and assisted-driving software demonstrate their ability to cut accidents, regulators will move to make them compulsory for all new cars. Insurers are already pressing motorists to accept black boxes that measure how carefully they drive: these will provide a mass of data which is likely to show that putting the car on autopilot is often safer than driving it.
If and when cars go completely driverless—for those who want this—the benefits will be enormous. … Huge numbers of elderly and disabled people could regain their personal mobility. The young will not have to pay crippling motor insurance, because their reckless hands and feet will no longer touch the wheel or the accelerator. The colossal toll of deaths and injuries from road accidents—1.2m killed a year worldwide, and 2m hospital visits a year in America alone—should tumble down, along with the costs to health systems and insurers.
3. Driverless cars should also ease congestion and save fuel. Computers brake faster than humans. And they can sense when cars ahead of them are braking. So driverless cars will be able to drive much closer to each other than humans safely can. On motorways they could form fuel-efficient “road trains”, gliding along in the slipstream of the vehicle in front. People who commute by car will gain hours each day to work, rest or read a newspaper.
4. As for the liability issue, the law should be changed to make sure that when cases arise, the courts take into account the overall safety benefits of self-driving technology.