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Future of Autonomous Vehicles

Our time and our lives are precious to us, and Padmasree Warrior (CEO NIO) has something important to say about that. In a recent blog post on the NIO company website, she states the following:

“Autonomous electric cars will be here sooner than we think, and they will save us time and perhaps even our lives.”

The promise of time returned to us, and the preservation of our lives in the face of overwhelming statistics about injuries and deaths from car crashes, are two very powerful motivations already shaping the future of autonomous vehicles—for many, they are why we should be pursuing this future in the first place.

Environmental concerns—and the ways self-driving vehicles (including electric ones) might help address them—are swiftly becoming a third motivating force in the drive towards an autonomous vehicle-powered future. As Warrior notes in her post:

“Air pollution currently causes 3 million premature deaths globally every year. This is not just an India or China problem. It affects all of us no matter where we live. The U.S. is first in oil consumption and second in carbon emissions in the world. Motor vehicles collectively cause 75% of carbon monoxide pollution in the U.S. We have the technology to cut these emissions and help us all breathe cleaner air.”

Is it possible that self-driving electric vehicles actually do represent something like our salvation as a species on this planet? It’s hard at times not to feel that this is far-fetched. Yet sound minds weigh in regularly with serious perspectives—President Barack Obama, for one:

“Right now, too many people die on our roads—35,200 last year alone—with 94 percent of those the result of human error or choice. Automated vehicles have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives each year. And right now, for too many senior citizens and Americans with disabilities, driving isn’t an option. Automated vehicles could change their lives.”

A 2015  McKinsey report entitled “Ten Ways Autonomous Driving Could Redefine the Automotive World” forecasts a progressive transformation marked by incremental adoptions and implementations of autonomous vehicle technology, with each stage ushering in a range of changes.

In the early phases, the report envisions off-road industrial vehicles as the early adopters, with the on-road trucking industry following closely behind. A projected key benefit here is environmental—optimized driving could potentially lead to emissions reductions of 60% or more. The report then predicts autonomous technology moving into the consumer sector in the form of ride-hailing services and other such “taxi” or “ride-sharing” services. With regards to this projected phase, I think our friends and colleagues who’ve just launched Voyage would say we’re already very close!

“We want to deploy these not within five years, but very soon. We think in terms of weeks, not in terms of years or months.” —Oliver Cameron, CEO, Voyage Auto

At whatever point autonomous vehicles do “go mainstream,” the report suggests the impact could literally be life-changing:

“By midcentury, the penetration of AVs and other ADAS could ultimately cause vehicle crashes in the United States to fall from second to ninth place in terms of their lethality ranking among accident types. Today, car crashes have an enormous impact on the US economy. For every person killed in a motor-vehicle accident, 8 are hospitalized, and 100 are treated and released from emergency rooms. The overall annual cost of roadway crashes to the US economy was $212 billion in 2012. Taking that year as an example, advanced ADAS and AVs reducing accidents by up to 90 percent would have potentially saved about $190 billion.”

There are naysayers of course. Resistance sometimes comes in the form of uncertainty, as voiced by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind in a recent Washington Post article:

“We should not move forward when automated vehicles are just as safe—or really, as dangerous—as human drivers. They need to be much safer. Two times safer? Five times? Ten times? And what does ‘safer’ actually mean?”

Resistance can also often sound an almost paranoid tone, as, for example, when represented by technology forecaster/futurist Paul Saffo:

“If you order a Google robotic car, not only will they charge you for it—they will know where you started, where you ended, with a camera inside tracking your eye gaze to figure out what you’re interested in.”

Sometimes, the cautionary note is sounded from unexpected sectors—as in this Slate article:

Self-Driving Cars Will Make Organ Shortages Even Worse

Did you see that coming? Neither did I. But read the article. It’s surprisingly well-reasoned, and remarkably informative.

In other arenas, people are simply getting down to the real business of understanding what the future of autonomous cars means for the daily existence of our cities and our citizens. This is just a small sampling of the studies already being conducted:

At the end of the day, we don’t yet know the numbers. We don’t actually know how much we’ll save in the way of time, lives, or the environment. But one thing seems certain—the changes are coming. If we start planning wisely now, we can make it work. And the the world will likely be much, much better for our efforts.

“Fewer deaths, cleaner air and more time isn’t just a dream anymore, it will be our reality.” —Padmasree Warrior, CEO, NIO


Are you interested in sharing the future of autonomous vehicles? Apply for our Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree program today!

Christopher Watkins
Christopher Watkins
Christopher Watkins is Senior Writer and Chief Words Officer at Udacity. He types on a MacBook or iPad by day, and either an Underwood, Remington, or Royal by night. He carries a Moleskine everywhere.