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The Future of Autonomous Vehicles | Commentary

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing this month to examine “How Autonomous Vehicles Will Shape the Future of Surface Transportation.” It’s a good inquiry — already, many tech and auto interests recognize the societal benefits and business case for autonomous vehicles, and are investing enormous time and capital into innovating in this rapidly evolving sector.

At the hearing, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head David Strickland stated, “Increasingly, a car’s capabilities are determined more by its electronics than by its mechanics.” He added, “This is bringing countless innovations that improve driver comfort, provide useful information and entertainment, and, most importantly, advance safety.”

Like the transition from horse-and-buggy to internal combustion engine automobiles a century ago, autonomous vehicles will transform not only the way we travel, but also impact the way our society functions.

For instance, autonomous vehicles have enormous potential to increase the safety of the American public through advances in crash avoidance. Government estimates say that as many as 90 percent of all car accidents are caused by human error. But with these new technologies, we can take humans out of the equation — and with incredible results.

Recently, the Eno Center for Transportation released a paper projecting that if only 10 percent of all vehicles in the United States were self-driving, the number of accidents each year would be cut by 211,000, and 1,100 lives would be saved. And if the share of self-driving vehicles increased to 90 percent, as many as 4.2 million accidents could be avoided, saving 21,700 lives.

But the benefits do not start and end with safety. For instance, autonomous vehicles could offer more mobility to disadvantaged populations, including the elderly and those who are disabled, who often are unable to access adequate transportation, according to a recent study by the General Accounting Office. Older adults are the fastest-growing segment of the nation’s population, the report notes, and access to transportation is critical to helping individuals remain independent as they age.

Another place where adopting autonomous vehicle technology would help our society is by improving our carbon footprint. A McKinsey research study authored this year estimates that 300 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions could be saved annually with the adoption of autonomous vehicles.

Self-driving vehicles would also improve everyday efficiency by eliminating congestion and saving time. The Texas Transportation Institute’s 2012 Urban Mobility Report estimates that congestion forces travelers to allow 60 minutes of travel time for trips that should take 20.

But autonomous vehicles are able to follow the other vehicles in front of them more efficiently, reducing the accordion effect you see when cars follow each other in a line. This improved traffic flow could help everyone on the road, whether they drive an autonomous vehicle or not. In fact, the Eno Center predicts that with just a 10 percent market penetration of autonomous vehicles “freeway congestion delays for all vehicles are estimated to fall 15 percent — mostly due to smoothed flow and bottleneck reductions.”

In addition to the many practical and societal benefits outlined above, the total economic gain of these technologies is staggering. Morgan Stanley recently estimated that autonomous cars could “contribute $1.3 trillion in annual savings to the U.S. economy alone, with global savings estimated at over $5.6 trillion.”

However, there may be roadblocks to these benefits.

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