By Rutt Bridges
Would you rather fight traffic, or catch up on Facebook, or chat with friends on your cell phone? Today, people try to do all of these at once—endangering our lives and the safety of our roads. Thanks to the rapid advancement of driverless vehicle technology, however, these risks may be coming to an end. Equally as promising, driverless cars stand to give inexpensive mobility to millions of Americans who currently have none and may need it most. Greater service, improved safety, and expanded access? Driverless vehicles could turn the transportation system as we know it on its head.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles, rightly understanding the value of getting driverless cars on our public streets, has the unenviable task of proposing regulations for this promising and rapidly evolving technology—it is no small feat to try to write rules for vehicles still under development. I recently participated in a DMV workshop that gave the public the opportunity to comment on the proposed regulations. Without question, the most controversial point of the discussion was, and continues to be, the condition that driverless cars must have a licensed driver present when underway.
More than 2.5 million disabled people call California home, and many of these Americans are incapable of operating a car or cannot afford a specially-equipped vehicle. Some are virtually homebound, hardly able to participate in society or find or maintain employment. Too often, public transportation only takes them from where they are not to too far from where they want to be.
For them, the door-to-door service of an inexpensive autonomous taxi is a life-changer. The same is true for a single mom trying to find a good job close enough to home to feed her kids and still have time to help them with their homework. Driverless cars can solve that problem in less time and for less money than bus fare. And seniors will be able to give up their keys without giving up their freedom.
Unfortunately, the DMV’s currently proposed rules require a specially trained and licensed operator be present in driverless vehicles at all times, removing any advantage over today’s taxis or conventional cars. Though the DMV undoubtedly had safety in mind when it created this rule, the requirement may risk making roads less safe—not more—and here’s why.
The regulations presume the driver can quickly take control of the vehicle in the event of an emergency—but how many days of incident-free driving would it take before that driver decides to start texting instead of diligently watching the road? After periods of inactivity, studies suggest people can take as long as seven seconds to appraise and react to a situation. By comparison, driverless cars can respond within a tiny fraction of a second by swerving or hitting the brakes, reacting far faster than the fastest Formula 1 driver.
Analysis from the U.S. Department of Transportation shows that 94 percent of accidents are due to distraction, drowsiness, driver error or drunkenness. Driverless cars don’t suffer from any of these problems.
The number of Americans that have lost their lives due to the lack of safety on our roads and highways is a national disgrace. Over 550,000 people have died in vehicle crashes so far this century—100,000 more than died fighting all of America’s 20th-century wars. These aren’t just statistics; they are human lives. Driverless vehicles have the potential to reduce automobile accidents by as much as 90 percent.
California must ensure the safety of its citizens and promote the use of driverless cars at the same time, holding onto its place as the world’s haven for innovation while serving as the nexus of a once-in-a-lifetime shift in human mobility. In the name of saving lives and giving new freedom to millions, I hope California will reconsider this restriction.
Rutt Bridges is a geophysicist and author of Driverless Car Revolution. Bridges is a member of the Autonomous Vehicle Task Force at Securing America’s Future Energy, a group of leading experts facilitating the widespread deployment of driverless vehicle technology.
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