Experts opine on the future of autonomous cars

Friday, October 07, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 41
By Linda Bryant

Autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars, represent a huge shift for the automotive industry.

At the same time, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding this disruptive new technology and much debate about how it will impact society.

The Ledger reached out to national experts in an effort to see what the future may hold.

Here are excerpts from their comments.

Anurag Pande, Ph.D.

Traffic safety expert, California Polytechnic State University

“I see the biggest challenge (for autonomous vehicles) would be coexistence with existing fleet of really well-made cars that will last for next two decades at least. They might overall lead to increased vehicle-miles traveled. I think within five years almost all cars will have level 2 or 3 automation feature.

“Given younger people’s preference for looking at their phones while middle-aged people still prefer driving, some low-cost self-driving options should be available. But this fact might slow down the progress a bit, in that folks with more money prefer driving.”

Jonah Bliss

Director of Community OpenRide, a ride sharing company

“Like all disruptive technologies, all of the foreseeable changes necessary to accommodate this revolutionary trend may not yet be known, but at a consumer level, insurance laws will undoubtedly need to be changed in order to determine financial responsibility when accidents occur.

“For instance, how much insurance are you required to carry? In the future, when the causes for accidents don’t involve human beings, laws will need to be enacted and manufacturers will need to be looked at in a much different way, perhaps more in line with how we currently view product liability cases.

“I definitely see the technical readiness of self-driving cars quickly outpacing our society’s readiness to fully adopt it: not just from a consumer standpoint, but from the way our legal system works. Here’s the big question: if a self-driving car gets in an accident, who is liable?

“The ‘driver’ – who was really just a passenger? Google/the software maker? Ford/the hardware maker? A combination of all those? Will the hardware and software makers have to have insurance to guard against that? Given how little insurance many drivers carry today, companies would need to carry much higher protection, driving up the cost.

“Ultimately, I think the technology will prevail – it always does – but we’ll have an interesting series of lawsuits and legislation back-and-forths on the way there.’’

Shayrgo Barazi

Automotive engineer, founder of CarSumo.com

“There are many areas in which autonomous vehicles will have an impact on our lives. One of the biggest impacts will be on the economy as taxi and commercial truck drivers will be replaced by autonomous vehicle technology, impacting millions of people dependent on driving for a living.

“Automotive engineers argue that autonomous vehicles are inherently safer than human-piloted vehicles and have the potential to save thousands of lives every year from accidents caused by distracted and unskilled drivers.

“In 2015 alone 38,300 people died in driver related fatalities in the United States. Similar to how anti-lock brakes can bring a vehicle to stop quicker than a driver can without ABS, autonomous vehicles will be able to react quicker to dangerous situations and can immediately process the best evasive maneuver to bring the vehicle to safety.

“This will be accomplished by advanced processing power as well as connected vehicle technology that allows for any one vehicle to know the positioning and trajectory of other vehicles on the road, allowing the autonomous car to anticipate and avoid potential accidents.’’

Kevin Cook

Senior stock strategist, Zacks Investment Research

“Autonomous vehicles will be a big part of the future because of the vast opportunity to increase driving safety. The industry’s evolution will come in stages over many years.

“Most people won’t be willing to give up their love affair with their cars and driving. So it begins with ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) that create new safety benefits such as Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB).

“Mobileye has been a leader here because rear-end collisions are so frequent, cause so much damage to life and property and are so easily preventable in the age of texting drivers.

“The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety announced in March a historic commitment by 20 automakers representing more than 99 percent of the U.S. auto market to make AEB a standard feature on virtually all new cars no later than 2022.’’

(The growth of the industry) “should lower insurance costs for everyone. I know the city buses in Chicago are especially dangerous because they are almost silent coming at you at 30-plus miles per hour. More ADAS for buses to alert drivers to pedestrians will help. Buses should be completely autonomous within the next 5-10 years. There won’t be much change for drivers and commuters in the next 5 years because the adoption of this technology will meet resistance in the populace and in their lawmaking capitals.”

Nelson Chu

CEO, Tritan Collective, a think tank

“This (self-driving car technology) will radically change the landscape for many industries, some for the better, some for the worse, and the actual dollar value impact is in the trillions. The societal impact will be massive. The elderly and young adults will have complete freedom to do what they want and where they want which should make a substantial positive impact to our GDP.

“Traditional service jobs such as taxi drivers and truck drivers will be almost entirely eliminated though, shifting towards higher human capital jobs like engineering which could create a huge problem for unemployment unless a rethink of how the country approaches education is done.

“Productivity and efficiency should increase dramatically for those that stand to benefit from what will initially be considered a luxury. But it will make life worse for those who don’t have the skills to succeed in this new autonomous age and the concept of the social safety net needs to be revisited very soon.”

Steven J. Hausman, Ph.d

Futurist and president, Hausman Technology Presentations

“Self-driving vehicles will become much more prevalent, not only for passenger cars but especially for trucks. One implication of this will be a significant restructuring of the workforce.

“For example, consider the need for cab drivers if all you have to do is call (via phone or, most probably, an app) to have a car arrive at your home to take you where you want and when you want – and no tipping!

“Many individuals will no longer find it necessary to own their own vehicle. This will lead to reduced costs for insurance and maintenance. As a further consequence of automated driving technology the numbers of accidents will be reduced and the insurance industry will need to change its actuarial tables to reflect this shift.

“Similarly, the move to electric propulsion will cause radical turmoil in countries that currently depend upon oil as their economic base.

“In addition, we have to understand that the transportation industry cannot be viewed just as consisting of automobiles. It is likely that high speed rail lines will have become available throughout the country.

“This means that, in one scenario, you can call for a self-driving car to pick you up at your home on the East Coast and take you to the rail station for a high-speed trip to Chicago lasting no more than a couple hours – perhaps less. At that point you will also have scheduled a similar pick-up to take you to your desired destination: all without the necessity of owning your own vehicle.

“It is interesting to note that both Uber and Lyft are spending large sums to eventually convert their fleets to be self-driving. This will serve to eliminate those individuals who have come to depend upon these services for added income (another workforce restructuring consideration).

“Essentially both of these companies will be in the business of selling rides and not providing a cab-like service.”