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How Will Self-Driving Cars Change Travel?

Jamie C, 
Wednesday, 27 June 2018

With self-driving cars in the news more than ever before, it seems that the autonomous revolution is well under way. However, not everybody is thrilled to hear this news; the perception of driverless cars is very much split, as the following infographic shows:

driver-less car perception

Perhaps the lack of control is a key factor, with the majority of people believing that they are not only more skilled at driving than the average person, but also much safer than the average person. So, perhaps it’s understandable to see how this opinion prevails. However, with experts suggesting that if partially-autonomous features were more widespread this could reduce road deaths by up to a third, are we then over-estimating our own driving skills and underestimating the benefits of autonomous vehicles?

Based on the most recent data available, Waymo autonomous vehicles were over 28 times less likely to crash than the most at-risk human drivers, 16-17 year olds, and over 4 times less likely to crash than the safest demographic of human drivers.

Some have argued that since Waymo vehicles have not been deployed in widespread locations, or indeed conditions, these results are unrepresentative. However, with the technology ever-evolving, does this represent potential benefits that are too large to ignore?

In a recent report by McKinsey, it was estimated that once autonomous vehicles were rolled out on a much wider basis, this could reduce accident rates by 90%. Based on current fatality rates of car accidents across the globe, this could save over 965,000 lives a year.

driving fatality world map

An incredible feat indeed; however, one that is disputed by those who argue that such data under-represents the skills of human drivers and takes away their ability to be able to act and react to conditions on the road, which could put us in more danger.

But when we’re at the wheel, is our behaviour always in our complete, conscious control? For a long time now, road-designers have been testing and implementing ways to subtly alter the way cars drive.

Even seemingly counter-intuitive changes can influence how we drive – for example, when the central dividing line (which reminds us where we should position ourselves on the road) was removed, speed levels of cars dramatically reduced, decreasing by up to 9 mph on a 30mph road. Removing the centre line actually made the roads safer!

Roads Influence Drivers

If human drivers can be influenced by elements such as how roads are designed, without even being aware of the change in behaviour, are we really in as much control as we believe we are?

Studies have even revealed that events such as Daylight Saving Time, a common practice in countries across the globe, can serve to increase road accidents by up to 30%. Should a seemingly innocuous change which slightly affects when we drive have such a large impact on the quality of driving? And can autonomous vehicles help to lessen the impact of this?

Interestingly, this isn’t the only example where how people behave differs from how they believe (or indeed report) they do.

how people drive vs how they say they drive

Based on government travel survey responses, this data indicates we quite often report our ideal scenario, but in reality, we act differently. This is interesting when we consider our opinions on how safe we are when driving – do we report how we think we drive, or how we actually drive? Can self-driving cars bridge this gap?

In the future

There is much we still need to learn about autonomous vehicles and the technology and functionality still needs to develop. However, one of the limiting factors will be the public response to taking responsibility out of our own hands.

The data suggests we are not as safe as we think we are, but data doesn’t drive change, people do.

Jamie C,