Vehicle-technology firm Delphi recently sent a modified Audi SQ5 on a cross-country journey that took nine days and covered 3,400 miles. The car drove itself 99 percent of the time.
Make no mistake, autonomous cars are coming.
Many of us are ready for them. According to a 2014 survey by Insurance.com, 22 percent of drivers would buy an autonomous car today – and that number rises to 37 percent if a giant reduction in insurance costs is thrown in.
The bad news is that it may be decades before we can actually hand over our money for one. (See “When will cars drive themselves?”)
“The timeline for fully autonomous vehicles is difficult to estimate due to the numerous regulatory, economic and technological factors,” says Hossam Bahlool, senior director of product management and marketing at Telenav.
When it finally arrives, the age of the autonomous car will bring big leaps in safety and productivity – and some downsides we might never have foreseen. Here are some of the pros and cons that are already clear.
Pro: Autonomous cars will save your life
The biggest benefit of autonomous cars is their ability to prevent accidents and deaths. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), about 33,000 people die each year in crashes and about 2.3 million people are injured.
A recent McKinsey report estimates that computer-controlled cars will reduce crashes by 90 percent, which would save $180 billion a year in damages and health care costs.
They won’t prevent all accidents, of course. Google and Delphi recently reported that their autonomous vehicles had been involved in four accidents since California began issuing permits last year – but all of the accidents were caused by humans.
Pro: Autonomous cars will save you money
Expect a steep decline in the cost of car insurance. According to a recent Boston Group survey, cheap car insurance is the No. 2 reason drivers are interested in a fully autonomous car, right behind safety.
The average new car costs about $1,550 a year to fully insure for a driver with a clean record, according to data gathered for Insurance.com by Quadrant Information Services.
“The impact, over the next 30 or so years, will be enormous,” says Eli Lehrer of the think tank R Street. “Certain types of claims, such as theft and fender-benders, may become irrelevant. Claims currently placed on drivers' policies will become product-liability claims. A real sea change is coming, but it will take some time.”
McKinsey predicts prices will plummet and risk will shift from covering human error to technical failures.
Pro: Autonomous cars will save you time
When the car drives itself, you are free to work, sleep, read or just stare out the window. Currently, 1.2 billion people spend roughly 50 minutes a day in their car, much of it stuck in traffic.
All that extra time will lead to Web browsing and shopping, according to McKinsey. They estimate that all of this recovered time will result in $140 billion a year if drivers spend only half of those 50 minutes surfing and shopping.
Pro: Autonomous cars will cut gridlock
Parking garages suck up huge amounts of prime real estate in many city centers. Cars that park themselves can sit much closer together, and parking garages could be located outside the city center.
McKinsey estimates we could get 25 percent of our urban space back or roughly 6.8 billion square yards, which is the size of the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park combined.
What cities do with that space is a big question mark, but imagine parks, low-income housing, maybe even a new Disney World.
Pro: Autonomous cars will save gas
Studies done by the University of California, Riverside showed that autonomous cars traveling on high-speed lanes could “platoon” – travel together in a tight cluster – to reduce their aerodynamic drag and save 20 percent on fuel.
A recent study by the Intelligent Transportation Society of America found that intelligent transportation systems that consist of connected and autonomous cars could achieve a 2 to 4 percent reduction in oil consumption and related greenhouse gas emissions.
Finally, the era of autonomous cars will lead to a decrease in car ownership as people rely on driverless services or downsize to a single family vehicle that can drop Mom off at work and then return home for Dad.
Sound appealing? Now brace yourself for the downsides of autonomous cars.
Con: Autonomous cars will make you sick
Nothing ruins a brand-new autonomous car like the smell of vomit. According to a new report by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, roughly 6 to 12 percent of American adults will experience severe to moderate motion sickness in a driverless car.
The technical reason is that the brain likes your vestibular system (the inner ear and brain components that control eye movements and balance) to be in sync. Unfortunately, the majority of us will be reading, texting or watching TV, which quickly puts the vestibular system out of sync, resulting in nausea and vomiting.
The report encourages automakers to install large transparent windows and avoid swivel seats. Looking out the window or taking a nap will help control the nausea.
Con: Autonomous cars will bore enthusiasts
“If automated cars become mandated, driving enthusiasts will lose the pure aesthetic joy of driving,” says Bahlool.
If driverless vehicles prove to be as safe as experts predict, human drivers could possibly find themselves relegated to places where they can do no damage. You will have to go to a special track or dedicated road to actually slip behind the wheel.
Elon Musk, in a recent interview, went so far as to predict that eventually driving will be outlawed.
"It's too dangerous; you can't have a person driving a two-ton death machine,” said Musk.
Con: Autonomous cars might kill you
In the far-fetched version of this, autonomous cars become self-aware and decide to rid the world of humanity. Think “Maximum Overdrive.”
Even tech guru Musk has expressed concern with artificial intelligence, saying it is our greatest existential threat.
But hacking is the more realistic risk. “This is one threat (that) has to be taken very seriously,” says Will Knight, editor with MIT Technology Review, “but it isn’t autonomy that’s the problem; it’s increased computerization and connectivity."
While automakers and technology companies will certainly make security a top concern, hackers have proved a serious threat to just about every type of computer system in the world; it seems unlikely they won’t take a crack at driverless cars.
A few years back, white-hat hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek took control of a 2010 Toyota Prius using just a laptop. They were able to control the electronic smart steering, braking, displays, acceleration, engines, horns and lights.
Con: Autonomous cars might take your job
Taxis, long-haul trucks and delivery vans could easily become driverless. As accident rates drop dramatically, auto body shops and insurance companies will take a major hit. The local police department will be affected, as when every car on the road obeys the law, funding from citations dries up and cops start getting pink slips.
Even automakers could be in trouble, according to Bahlool.
“Ironically, unless the automotive industry can figure out a different way to participate in the value chain, they themselves may be at a risk of losses due to decreasing vehicle ownership,” he says.
Con: Humans can bully your autonomous cars
Thor Benson points out on Medium.com that a perfectly mannered autonomous car may find itself the victim of bullying by less well-mannered human drivers.
Benson imagines a scenario where a human driver that he calls “The Idiot” exploits this brave new world – cunningly or not – where everyone else’s machines magically avoid him. It doesn’t matter that he’s not got a fancy new autonomous car, only that everyone else does.
“The only thing on The Idiot’s mind is that he knows when he moves toward the intelligent cars, they move out of his way,” Benson writes.
Con: An autonomous car can be a witness in your divorce
Autonomous cars are packed with technology, which means that pretty much your every move will be tracked and recorded.
While it seems certain that automakers will address this issue, it also seems certain that there will be legal cases where tracking details from an autonomous car will be a factor.
According to Thomas Simeone with the law firm Simeone & Miller, your car will be able to tattle on you.
“Any information recorded will be obtainable. This rule applies in every case, including divorce cases,” he says. “Your husband or wife can subpoena your car’s records to determine your whereabouts.”
Much like cell phones, the data will be there. The question is who gets to see it.
Feel safer, spend less today
If your car already parks itself, pumps the brakes automatically to avoid a skid or even has cruise control, you’re driving a partially autonomous car.
Yet a nap on the way to work is probably decades away. You still have thousands of hours behind the wheel in front of you. Until the day you buy your first truly self-driving car, you can:
- Watch new-car technology: Collision-avoidance systems have shown promising early results and are becoming much more widely available. (See “The best new-car safety features.”) The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety won’t bestow its highest rating on a vehicle without it.
- Shop for a safer used car: Electronic stability control has been required on new vehicles since 2012. If you buy a car older than that, choose one with stability control over one without.
- Revisit your insurance coverage: If you move, marry, buy a house, get a ticket, make a claim or have a teenager joining the driving fray, you need to compare car insurance quotes. This is also a good idea if you simply haven’t shopped around lately.