Robots Don’t Drink and Drive

Guest author Karen Crofton is an RMI alum.

A staggering two out of every three Americans will be involved in an accident related to drunk driving in their lifetime. And with the near ubiquity of mobile phones, texting while driving has become a new, deadly problem on our roads. In fact, texting while driving is now the leading cause of death among teenagers. The tragedy is that these events are completely preventable—each and every one involves human error, making the poor choice to either get behind the wheel in the first place while impaired or to take out a phone and text once driving.

Until now we have taken a reactive approach to protect ourselves from driving dangers like these—we wear seat belts, design crumple zones, install air bags, and place our children in five-point-harness car seats. These are all defensive measures. But there is now a more elegant way to deal with driver-error: take the driver out of the equation. We need to stop treating symptoms and start addressing root causes.

Smarter cars and safer cities

What if the solution to dangerous drivers already exists and doesn’t cost us a penny? Believe it or not, that solution is here. Emerging technology from America’s brightest minds can end unnecessary driving deaths in 10 years. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) paired with clever infrastructure can completely remove dangerous drivers from the equation for you and your family. Organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving have made tremendous strides reducing drunk driving through legislation, education, and more. They are also proponents of technology like AVs to try and stop drunk driving before it starts. The technology has arrived, and we must implement it properly and aggressively to ensure safe motor vehicle travel for all.

How could this work? Imagine this scenario for the near future: It’s 2025, and several years ago cities took bold steps and designated certain roads, lanes, and zones as AV-only. All new vehicles are required to have a self-driving AV mode, and many companies make retrofit kits for existing vehicles. For the protection of your children (AVs never speed, always pay attention, and instantly yield to pedestrians—especially a child chasing a ball into the street), you and your neighbors vote that your neighborhood become AV-only. You hop in your old, trusty 2017 electric vehicle, now equipped with an AV kit, and tell the computer system to take you to work. Autopilot takes over and drives you out of your neighborhood to an AV-only major street. You relax back in your seat, unconcerned that the man in the vehicle next to you is texting because his similarly self-driving car is paying full attention. Your car pulls onto the AV-only lane of the freeway, which is physically separated from the unpredictable human drivers in the other lanes. Special communication and sensor systems in the car and highway infrastructure share data constantly, allowing the AVs to draft one another at close distances otherwise unsafe for human drivers. As a result, you travel the highway at high speed, with no traffic, low wind resistance, and no fear of collision, all while calmly checking work email on your laptop.

Your car automatically selects the most efficient exit and you leave the highway for the city-center, which is also AV-only. The city looks and feels different than it used to. Many parking lots and parking spaces are gone, replaced by parks, small businesses, and additional housing. There is no traffic congestion, as the AVs seamlessly maneuver like schools of fish. Your car drops you off at work and then engages with the electrical grid to charge and offer services like load balancing, frequency regulation, and energy storage.

After work, you hit the local brewpub with some coworkers for a beer. You notice another patron stagger out of the bar. Ten years earlier, this would have filled you with dread, wondering if he was going to wait for a cab or if he was about to put innocent lives, including your family, at risk. However, in an AV-only zone, he cannot pilot the vehicle, and his autopilot takes him home. You page your car from your smart phone, and it picks you up and whisks you home while you relax and watch baseball on your tablet. You arrive home just as another AV drops off your teenagers from their after-school events. Fortunately, the texting-while-driving deaths that were so common a decade ago are a horror of the past.

This future could be closer than you think

This might seem like science fiction, but with a few tangible steps now, this could be the near future. Automakers, research institutions, and Silicon Valley are doing their part. Many mass-market autos already have autonomous safety features like adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, driverless parking, and blind spot sensing, so moving to fully autonomous vehicles is less like science fiction and more like a natural progression. We already see autonomous and connected-vehicle technologies rapidly emerging from Google, Tesla, IBM, Cisco, almost every major carmaker, and our best universities. But we as a society need to demand changes to policy and infrastructure to unlock AVs’ full potential and ensure the end to unnecessary auto deaths.

Drunk driving costs the U.S. $199 billion each year. We spend additional billions on roads and parking infrastructure that could be avoided. A study by the University of Texas found that employing AVs in an AV-only zone could reduce the number of vehicles by over ten times, greatly reducing the need for lanes and parking lots while not sacrificing travel convenience. In addition, traffic congestion that would be alleviated by AVs costs each car-owning American $1,700 per year, or about $350 billion for the country. With over a half trillion dollars on the table, we have the resources to make important changes now. This staggering amount of money is enough to outfit every vehicle in a fleet of 30 million cars with $20,000 worth of autonomous capability. The biggest cost we face now is the cost of not acting.

Alleviating both human-error driving deaths and climate change

What if the same solution that could eradicate drunk driving and texting while driving could also get U.S. cars off oil and reduce vehicle CO2 emissions by up to 95 percent within the next decade? In addition to being far safer than human drivers, AVs will also be far more energy efficient. Preliminary RMI analysis indicates that traditional gasoline vehicles with AV capability operating in AV-only zones could more than double their fuel economy. AVs in AV-only zones accelerate and decelerate infrequently and at maximum efficiency. In AV-only zones, starting, stopping, and idling are minimized. In AV-only highway lanes, autos are able to draft one another, greatly reducing aero drag.

But the true efficiency value of AVs is unlocked when you combine connected, driverless vehicles with car sharing, electrified powertrains, and resilient, aerodynamic, lightweight materials. Our initial analysis indicates that these shared, efficient, autonomous, and long-lasting vehicles (SEALs) can eliminate the need for gasoline and reduce vehicle CO2 emissions by up to 95 percent, even when considering the CO2 emitted from the electricity generation. This is an astonishing finding, especially since AVs will also save 10,000s of lives each year and could cost each of us 10 times less than we pay now for personal mobility at increased convenience.

We need an AV early adopter

Autonomous vehicles are gaining traction. Four U.S. states (Nevada, Florida, California, and Michigan), along with the District of Columbia, have enacted laws legalizing autonomous vehicles. Many other states are in the process of approving similar measures. But like any paradigm-shattering technology, the idea of deferring command of one’s vehicle elicits pushback. Google’s autonomous SUV has logged over 700,000 self-driving miles without incident, but a full-scale deployment of AVs is still theoretical. In order to unlock the revolutionary potential described above, we must take the first step to demonstrate the amazing advantages of a city without human drivers, plus thoughtfully navigate a transition period in which we’ll still have legacy highway and parking infrastructure and millions of drivers still behind the wheel of their traditional cars.

We need bold communities to step forward and agree to pilot an AV-only city, area, or zone. Partnering with RMI and/or industry leaders, we could provide state-of-the-art AVs and outfit existing local vehicles with AV technology, allowing for personally owned vehicles with AV capability, as well as shared, electric AVs that could serve as inexpensive mass transit.

The pilot community would see not only reduced auto fatalities and costs, but also reduced traffic, air pollution, noise pollution, and parking infrastructure, along with increased publicity and tourism. When the pilot is complete, we could scale the solution to other interested locales. By 2020, commercial AV technology should be readily available, and many more towns could follow the lead of the early adopters. By 2025, AV-only roads and zones could be deployed anywhere, from downtown Manhattan to rural Iowa. A radically safer and cleaner transportation system is just around the corner if we act bravely now.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.