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ITIF Event Highlights the Social and Economic Case for Autonomous Vehicles

Chris Urmson Presenting

On Capitol Hill yesterday, ITIF hosted an event making the social and economic case for autonomous vehicles. The event featured presenters from Toyota, Google, and Texas Instruments, as well as DC Councilmember Mary Cheh, who introduced the Autonomous Vehicles Act of 2012, which authorizes autonomous vehicles to operate on the District’s roadways. (Similar legislation has also been enacted in California, Florida, and Nevada and introduced in nine other states.) Collectively, the panelists made the case that the advent of automated driving (i.e. driver assistance) technologies—and ultimately fully autonomous vehicles—is poised to deliver tremendous safety, personal mobility, environmental, productivity and efficiency, and economic benefits.

Regarding safety, with human error the definite or probable cause of 93 percent of traffic accidents, autonomous vehicles could dramatically reduce accident incidence because they will obey all traffic laws, won’t speed, and won’t drive while distracted, tired, texting, or inebriated. This could significantly ameliorate the over 4 million traffic accidents which occur annually on U.S. roadways and which cause more than 35,000 traffic fatalities (almost 100/day) and an estimated $450 billion in economic losses. In the meantime, a range of automated driver assistance technologies, from blind spot detection, lane departure warnings, dangerous proximity (pre-collision) indicators, rearview cameras, parking assist, etc. are already having an impact in reducing accidents and increasing driver and pedestrian safety. Here, Jason Schulz, Toyota’s Manager of 21st Century Business Partnerships, noted that Toyota invests $1 million per hour in research and development and highlighted Toyota’s Advanced Active Research Safety Vehicle, which is pioneering many new automated driving and intelligent transportation system technologies.

At the same time, autonomous vehicles could profoundly enhance personal mobility and convenience for those who cannot drive themselves, particularly the elderly or the disabled. Chris Urmson, the Leader of Google’s Self-driving Car program, showed a compelling video of a blind citizen, Steve Mahan, completing daily chores and visiting friends thanks to Google’s driverless vehicle. As Urmson noted, “We all at some point will lose the privilege of driving [as we get older],” and autonomous vehicles could help people maintain the mobility they’ve grown accustomed to throughout our lives.

Autonomous vehicles would further enable maximal utilization of existing transportation infrastructure and assets. On average, the American car sits idle 92 percent of the time, but autonomous vehicles could be shared or otherwise deployed in their spare time (e.g., the car goes to the dry cleaner to pick up your clothes or gets rented out to others). Autonomous vehicles could also maximize highway utilization by allowing vehicles to drive closer together and more seamlessly integrating with transportation infrastructure. Today, highways at peak capacity are only 6-8 percent occupied with vehicles, but highways full with autonomous vehicles could accommodate 2 to 3 times as many automobiles, significantly ameliorating the $200 billion in annual economic losses and environmental damage caused by traffic congestion (and the 34 hours per year the average American spends stuck in traffic). In fact, Toyota’s Schulz noted that the average American pays a “congestion penalty” of $818 per year, with DC-area drivers paying the highest penalty at over $1,400 per year. Autonomous vehicles will also enable entirely new business models. Companies will offer personal mobility solutions where instead of going to pick up a ZipCar or hail a taxi, one can use a smartphone application to summon an autonomous vehicle to you on-demand. Likewise, if the vehicle is doing the driving, an opportunity opens to provide value-added services to the vehicles’ occupant, whether entertainment, Internet connectivity for productivity, concierge services, etc. Next-generation car sharing, fractionalized vehicle ownership, new auto insurance models, and new forms of connected vehicles and user experiences will all be made possible through automated vehicle technologies.

The panelists noted that the technologies needed to support automated driving and ultimately fully autonomous vehicles are rapidly maturing, however they noted it will take some time yet before the technologies are at price points that can support mass markets. Nevertheless, Google’s driverless car has now driven over one-and-a-half million miles on public roads. And it has logged more than 96,000 miles (almost ten years of human driving) between recording software critical driving errors. Google’s Urmson noted that his team is trying “to accelerate the time horizon” and expressed Google’s (intentionally ambitious) goal to make autonomous vehicles a reality for consumers within five years.

To be sure, as ITIF writes in The Road Ahead: The Emerging Policy Debates for IT in Vehicles, a number of technical, policy, regulatory, and product liability hurdles still need to be addressed.  DC Councilmember Mary Cheh noted the importance of establishing a legal framework in which autonomous vehicles can operate. In particular, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) will be challenged to develop common standards and protocols for testing and evaluation of autonomous vehicles to certify their safety. But the panelists noted that—given the profound benefits autonomous vehicles are poised to deliver—if all parties work collaboratively toward common goals, these challenges can be solved.

Indeed, smart public policies and government support will be vital in ensuring nations’ pioneering positions in the deployment and adoption of autonomous vehicle technologies. For example, Google’s Urmson noted that much of the industry’s work on autonomous vehicles stemmed from the Department of Defense’s 2005 Grand Challenge for Autonomous Vehicles, which he called a “Woodstock for geeks,” in which autonomous vehicles had to navigate 132 miles across the Mojave Desert in just ten hours. Likewise, leadership will be needed from U.S. policymakers at both the federal and state levels to craft legislation and safety standards through which automated or autonomous vehicle technologies can be researched, developed, tested, and ultimately deployed. But as Bill Krenik, Texas Instrument’s Chief Technologist, noted, the advent of autonomous vehicles will be as transformative as the shift from the horse to the internal combustion engine in the prior era. As Krenik noted, automated and autonomous vehicles will be key to the future competitiveness of both countries’ automobile industries and economies; and it’s vitally important that the United States provide a welcoming policy and sociopolitical environment to encourage the deployment and adoption.

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