The Death of Driving: The Age of Robot Drivers Could be Just Around the Corner

Self-driving cars have repeatedly been hitting the headlines this year, and following some estimations that the futuristic technology could be on the market by 2017, this should come as no surprise.

While a self-driving car that requires no human interaction has only recently become feasible, automated technology has existed for a while in the form of cruise control, parking assistance and satellite navigation. As these technologies have come together, there has been heavy speculation around the development of driverless cars. Google claims that its project to design a car launched in 2009, and last week the Guardian leaked plans that Apple is designing a self-driving electric car under the name “Project Titan”. Other companies, such as Honda and Mercedes-Benz have been carrying out experiments at a facility named “GoMentum Station”.

Although information is sparse on how exactly the first driverless car will operate, analysis of its impact on the economy and wider society is not. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates that by 2050 the U.S. could get back 25 percent of space currently used for parking cars. The amount of space redeemed totals 5.7 billion square meters, an area larger than the Grand Canyon.

Additionally a study by KPMG in 2012 predicts that self-driving cars could eliminate 93 percent of accidents attributed to human error, an amount that accounts for 90 percent of all road traffic accidents. In addition to reducing fatalities, this drop in crashes would reduce automobile repair and health care costs by $180 billion in the U.S., the McKinsey Report predicts. Though the overall economic boom is much harder to estimate, these are undoubtedly positive and promising statistics, showing how innovations can benefit all members of society.

Not all predictions have been so positive though; some fear that self-driving cars could bring massive unemployment to industries associated with human-driven cars. Those concerned cite estimations that the sharp decrease in accidents would undermine the $225.2 billion yearly economic contribution of the auto parts industry which employs 3.62 million people nationwide in the U.S. Also the diminished need for human drivers could decrease demand and employment for the 3.7 million professional drivers in the U.S. However, while this may be a widespread concern, a recent study by Deloitte has found that, overall, technological innovations over the last 140 years have actually increased employment, rather than decreased it.

Self-driving cars are certainly an interesting development, even if debate over their full potential impact continues. What their development does show however, is the ability of the market to come up with disruptive and innovative technologies making past fictional concepts a reality. Only time will tell whether these technologies really do better the human condition, but for now, they further prove that creative destruction will never fail to provide us with opportunities to advance well-being in our society.

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