Friday, May 10, 2013

Why Self Driving Cars Are Coming Sooner Than You Think

No futuristic technology excites me more than the self driving car.  This desire to own one is purely selfish: (1) I hate driving, and I feel it is a waste of my time and energy.  It is also exhausting emotionally when some idiot almost hits me.  (2) It makes me nervous to have others drive me, be it taxi drivers or friends.  (3) I love the flexibility and convenience driving affords me, as opposed to public transportation and alternative modes of transportation.  (4) Being in a car in a populated area is the most dangerous thing most people do in their lifetimes, and most people do it every day.  It doesn't matter that I'm a safe driver; some idiot can hit me when I'm stopped with nowhere to go, and damage my personal property.  Even if its repaired, the car loses value.  Thus, I want all other drivers to own one, too.

So you can have your phablet or your 3D television, all I want for Christmas is an autonomous car.  Hell, I'd even give up my smart phone for a car that drives itself.  Maybe I'm one of the few in the early adopter stage; that wouldn't be a surprise to those who know I own the first Chevy Volt in Arizona.  Maybe I'm just lazy and want to make life even easier on me.  Either way, I want it.  But I won't be so naive to think that everyone will jump at the chance of buying one.  In fact, I don't even think the product life cycle of the self driving car is even worth talking about.  When you question whether or not car makers can make it and car buyers will buy it, I think you're missing a lot of the more important aspects of the discussion.   

The legislation that does exist today - primarily requiring an alert, responsible human driver - is ridiculous.  To that end, if that's the legislation that sticks, we will never get mainstream adoption.  The legislation is indicative of caution exerted around the unknown, which is understandable because we don't really have a solid, viable product in the consumer's hands to base it on yet.  I think what needs to happen is we need to flip it around.  Governments are interested in reducing car accidents and drunk driving.  Why not legislate that new cars have to be equipped with at least partially autonomous features?  The more cars that will avoid hitting things on the road, the less accidents we're likely to see, and the less lethal the remaining accidents should be.  To address the drunk driving issue, breathalzers could be installed and programmed to signal the car to take over the driving when the driver is blowing a high BAC.  Governments should be rallying behind the self-driving car, not putting up barriers.  

We know we can't always rely on government to do the right thing, so let's turn to the commercial world.  Taxis, limo services, shuttles and all sorts of transportation providers should be interested in self-driving cars.  The upfront cost may be astronomical to begin with, and some drivers are paid very poorly.  But there has got to be some length of time where the self-driving car makes economical sense over paying hourly wages, and that payback period will drop with large contracts and larger volumes in production.  

Let's not forget individual consumers who are unable to drive.  This can include the legally blind, the physically handicapped and the elderly.  I'm not saying they're going to shell out a bunch of money themselves, but there are probably grants, charitable support or other funding opportunities to help get them in self-driving cars to empower them to live with more freedom and flexibility.  Disabled military veterans, specifically, have several organizations and grants to support them in civilian life.  Even where there are no available government monies or charities, these kinds of a causes could be crowdfunding-worthy.  

Finally, insurance companies will want their drivers in autonomous cars.  There is huge potential for insurers to give discounts or even potentially subsidize the cost of an autonomous car, knowing their risk is much lower and that the more autonomous cars on the road, the less likely others are to have accidents.  They could give insured drivers the option of replacing their totaled cars with less expensive cars equipped with self-driving capabilities.  

The electric car is great, but it is not a good model to compare future demand for self-driving cars to.  The benefits of the electric car are mostly idealized: reducing dependency on gasoline from overseas, reducing pollution, paying less per mile, not having to go to the gas station.  These points are hard to defend, when it takes sometimes dirty energy to create the electricity, same of creating the car itself, and the cost of the cars make them less than economical.  Cool, yes, but economically sound and environmentally neutral, no.  The self-driving car, on the other hand, has much more tangible benefits.  People who can't drive can use them to reap the benefits of driving, the safety of the autonomous car's passengers and drivers around it is increased, and intoxicated drivers can get home safely without requiring a cab, to name a few.  Thus, the only main stakeholders for the growth of electric cars are the consumers, while the adoption of the autonomous car benefits almost everyone on the road, plus insurers, governments and people who are prevented from driving.  This is the angle that should be taken when discussing the feasibility of self-driving cars in the foreseeable future.  

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