More than ten years ago, the film I, Robot made a rather prescient nod to the future of the automotive industry. As Will Smith deactivates the automated driving function of his car, his passenger almost fearfully questions his decision. Now it seems as though within the next few decades manually operating a vehicle may indeed be considered a thing of madness.

Because human error is by far the leading cause of automobile accidents—at least 90 percent according to a comprehensive study by the University of Indiana, Bloomington—automobile companies have started producing vehicles with basic automatic functions. Reg Modlin, directory of regulatory affairs at Chrysler, says that the company’s new Cherokee has the ability to keep a car in its lane on the freeway. Other companies have turned out engines that shut off at stoplights, vents that close on the freeway to reduce drag and increase oil efficiency, and automatic breaks that activate if the vehicle senses an object ahead.

While these functions may have increased driver safety in a limited sense, both Modlin and the team behind Google’s famous self-driving car program insist that there is still a significant difference between automated vehicle functions like the aforementioned and autonomous vehicles—ones that require no driver control whatsoever. “It’s our vision of the future,” says a Google spokesperson, “and you need vehicles that are 100 percent self-driving to get into that future.”

This vision of autonomous vehicles means a change in road safety: If drivers can relinquish controls to machines, there will inevitably be a sharp decrease in automotive accidents, especially since 1 in 4 accidents are caused by cellphones. Modlin at Chrysler says that the fully autonomous cars of the future will be equipped with transmitters so that vehicles can communicate with one another and alert other autonomous vehicles of their movements. Autonomous vehicles will remove the unpredictable, human element from driving.

Although autonomous vehicles do exist—Google has been testing its fleet of self-driving Lexus cars and a fleet of its own autonomous vehicles on public roads—there is still work to be done. Not only will GPS efficiency need to be significantly improved so that vehicles can truly get from A to B on their own, but the test vehicles still need continued exposure to real driving scenarios so that the final product will be able to successfully navigate the road, regardless of the obstacles presented. Modlin also suggests that the biggest obstacle yet is not the technology itself, but for the technology to gain the public’s trust. That starts, he says, with proving the ways in which current limited automated features improve efficiency and safety. For Google, the goal is to program a car that is at least as safe as a car with a human driver.

Autonomous vehicles will change our roads not only by increasing driver safety but also by changing the way we commute altogether. The average daily commute time in the U.S. is almost an hour—and an automated car will mean an extra hour of free time each day for many Americans. These vehicles will communicate with one another to eliminate the inefficiencies of human driving—late merges, poor lane changes, and driving in circles trying to find our destinations. Drivers will see less congestion, which ultimately means less time on the road and, as an added bonus, greater energy efficiency. For drivers, this technology may mean cars that find their own parking spaces, vehicles that can be summoned to come pick someone up, greater ease of sharing vehicles, or simply never getting lost again.  

Perhaps the greatest change this technology will have on society is a democratizing of the roads. People who are either unable to drive because of disciplinary actions or simply unable to drive will see cars pick them up from their doorsteps. Older people who can no longer drive safely, or those with disabilities keeping them from getting behind the wheel, will finally be able to travel with more freedom and independence.

Although the technology may not yet be in the realm of I, Robot, the idea that humans will no longer be required behind the wheel is perhaps not so out of this world. Elon Musk, who spoke at a recent conference, certainly believes that human-operated cars will one day become a relic: "You can't have a person driving a two-ton death machine.” Which is to say, the removal of human hands from the wheel may, after all, be the kind of change the automotive industry has been waiting for since its inception.

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