The benefits of driverless cars – part two

Our recent post, The benefits of driverless cars – part one, explored some of the ways in which autonomous technologies are likely to improve life on the roads.

In this post, we look at several other benefits that the arrival of self-driving cars will bring – from cheaper insurance to better mobility for elderly and disabled people.

What benefits do driverless cars offer?

Your car insurance may get cheaper

As insurers and policy-makers weigh up the issue of self-driving cars and liability, the question of how to insure driverless vehicles isn't one that will be solved overnight.

But as cars take over many of a driver's current responsibilities, insurance models will change. Autonomous technologies will start to cut the number of parking accidents, for example, meaning that costs will fall for insurers. This, in turn, should lower premiums.

Over time, as fully autonomous cars become the norm, insurance may even become the responsibility of the car-maker, rather than the car's owner. Or, in the case of shared fleets of driverless cars, insurance might be included as part of your membership – similar to the insurance models used by car-sharing schemes such as Zipcar.

This will be particularly good news for motorists who drive safely but find themselves penalised with heavy premiums because of their age. It's also a bonus if you're one of those drivers who struggles to fit into a tight parking space!


Driverless cars will protect other road users

As the number of driverless cars grows – especially in congested cities – the ability of these vehicles to plan ahead, react faster than human drivers and communicate with the cars around them will mean that roads can be used more efficiently.

According to AnnaLisa Meyboom, director of the University of British Columbia's Transportation Infrastructure and Public Space Lab, this will create more space on the roads. 

"That's quite far in the future, when you're looking at all people being in autonomous vehicles. But it has the potential to free up a lot of road space...  for bike lanes–things like that," said Meyboom in an interview with the Georgia Straight

Cyclists and pedestrians will also benefit from better protection as self-driving cars take to the streets. Driverless vehicles' sensors will allow them to identify more vulnerable road users, anticipate their likely movements (such as a cyclist needing to swerve round a pothole) and react swiftly to avoid hitting them.

How a driverless car helped avoid hitting this cyclist

This video from Google's self-driving car project demonstrates the advantage that a driverless vehicle has over a human driver. The self-driving car spots a cyclist crossing an intersection late and waits for them to complete their crossing safely – unlike the motorist in the next car.

Greater freedom for elderly and disabled people

For many elderly and disabled people, driving is no longer an option. This restriction leads to a lack of mobility that can severely hamper their freedom and reduce their quality of life.

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Most people take driving for granted and could not imagine life without their car. However there are still many people who do not have a driving licence, or access to a vehicle. Disabled people may be unable to drive. Elderly people may be judged unfit to drive. Others may simply not want to drive or be concerned about their ability to do so.
— Department for Transport, The Pathway to Driverless Cars

And public transport is often not a practical alternative. Indeed, a recent report from Age UK and The International Longevity Centre – UK found that more than half of over-65s either never use public transport or use it less than once a month.

But driverless cars will change all this.

Instead of being stuck at home because they no longer feel able to drive (or aren't allowed to), people will simply summon a self-driving car and be taken to their destination.

As the UK's Department for Transport notes, "When automated vehicle technologies develop to the extent that vehicles which can undertake door to door journeys without the need of a driver at all [sic], they could improve mobility for all these people, enhancing their quality of life."

Not only will this make an enormous difference to people's mobility and freedom, but it will also mean that many won't have to rely on family, friends or carers to help them make a simple trip outside the home. 

Will driverless cars benefit the environment?

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It's been predicted that autonomous vehicles could help to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 90% per mile, compared to existing vehicles.

This prediction comes from researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who compared the likely environmental impact of autonomous taxis – a type of shared fully autonomous vehicle – with that of existing, conventionally driven vehicles.

In an article for Nature Climate Change, the authors – Jeffery B. Greenblatt and Samveg Saxena – estimate that by 2030, these autonomous taxis could deliver per-mile emissions 87–94% below those of current conventionally driven vehicles. These emissions would also be as much as 63–82% below those of hybrid vehicles, according to the authors.

One of the reasons for these savings is that autonomous taxis will be deployed according to passenger need. For example, a smaller vehicle could be sent to pick up a single passenger, while a larger taxi would be dispatched to drive a family travelling with lots of shopping or luggage. commentary – the benefits of a driverless future

Given how quickly the environment is changing, the journey towards a driverless future may be a bumpy one.

But as people start to understand the range of benefits that driverless cars will offer, support for self-driving vehicles is likely to grow.

One day, we may even look back on driving as a slightly tedious chore, on a par with doing the dishes, hand-washing laundry or paying bills by cheque.

Technology has led to better alternatives for each of these tasks, and it will soon do the same for many of the frustrations encountered by drivers today.

For some people – both motorists and other road users – that day can't come soon enough.

Other aspects of driverless cars should also aid environmental improvements. For example, better traffic management and journey planning will lead to more efficient journeys, less congestion and smoother driving practices.

But why does this matter? The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that aggressive driving habits, such as speeding, rapid acceleration and braking, can reduce a vehicle's mileage by as much as 33% at motorway speeds and by 5% when driving in a city. Having vehicles that can communicate with each other and avoid unnecessary braking and acceleration could make a substantial difference. 

And, as the Department's fuel economy website notes, "Sensible driving is also safer for you and others, so you may save more than gas money."

What other benefits do you expect driverless cars to deliver? How will you gain personally from the introduction of self-driving vehicles? Share your thoughts in the comments below.