One of the potential benefits of self-driving car technology, and certainly one of the benefits of mass transit options such as rail travel, is that auto collisions and fatalities can be reduced. How much they can be reduced is something of an open question, but considering how distracted, inebriated, and generally terrible many human drivers are, one would presume quite a lot.
On that note, the all-time driving mileage record in the US for the first half of the year was recently broken — with Americans driving around 1.58 trillion miles between January and July 2016, the distance equivalent of 250 round trips to Pluto. This was accompanied by a 9% year-on-year increase in traffic fatalities (as compared to 2015).
More specifically, roughly 19,000 people have been killed on US roadways since the year began (an 18% increase as compared to 2014) and around 2.2 million people were seriously injured in auto accidents during the first half of the year. This relates to around $205 billion in injury and death costs, according to the congressionally chartered nonprofit, the National Safety Council. (In 2014, the US fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles was 1.1; in 2015 it was 1.2; and in 2015 it’s projected to be 1.3.)
2.2 million serious auto-accident-related injuries in just 6 months in a country the size of the US is pretty amazing when you think about it. That’s a substantial portion of the population that’s being affected (whether directly or indirectly). Would greater availability of self-driving taxis and high-speed (or low-speed) rail lead to a significant drop in these figures? Factoring in related savings, what’s the actual financial benefit of rail?
Considering that the main driver of increased personal-vehicle travel in recent years has simply been low gas prices (along with a growing aversion to regional air travel), I would expect that, if self-driving taxi services were able to notably undercut the costs of travel by personal vehicle, that many people would simply switch over regardless of ingrained habits.
Since the increasing rates of auto collisions per miles driven in the US seen during the last few years are likely correlated (this is pure speculation, I know) with an aging baby boomer population (which is often heavily medicated), trends could possibly be reversed simply by giving that population access to affordable self-driving taxi services. Notably, this is one of the main drivers behind the development of self-driving car technologies in Japan — the recognition that the aging population will be increasingly dangerous on the roads.
The removal of much of the younger generations from the road, mostly through self-selection if attractive options other than personal vehicle ownership are available, would likely help in the reversal of this trend as well. The oldest and the youngest drivers out there are, after all, the most dangerous by a fair margin. (Amongst those that possess actual driver’s licenses anyways.)
A couple of other background points to make:
- The increase in driving mileage during the first 6 months of 2016 varied significantly by state — with Hawaii near the front, with a 9% increase in collective miles traveled.
- Auto-accident deaths in the US during 2016 could exceed the 40,000 mark for the first time in 9 years, if current trends continue.
- The increase in traffic fatalities varied significantly by state — with Florida (a 43% increase since 2014), Georgia (34%), Indiana (33%), California (31%), North Carolina (26%), Kentucky (24%), and Illinois (24%) all seeing big increases.
- The NSC is estimating that around 438 people will be killed during this year’s Labor Day weekend on US roadways. This would make for the highest tally since 2008.
On the subject of why people are driving more … I’ll just direct your attention to this: a woman pushing her baby in a pram, while leaning out of a moving-car’s window.
Also on that subject, I’ll relate a story: I recently saw a healthy woman in her 30s or so drive her BMW SUV a block-and-a-half back from the grocery store to her house, with only one bag of groceries. And, before you say it … I was in the park next to both places when she left and when she came back — the grocery store certainly wasn’t an intermediate stop on a longer trip; it was the whole trip.
Obviously, this sort of trip, while ridiculous, isn’t the sort that leads to serious collisions or fatalities, but it does illustrate something of the current attitude towards the use of personal vehicles in the US. Take away from this what you will. …