How Practical Are And What Might Be Some Unintended Consequences of Self-Driving Cars?

Ask a Scientist - March 2017

In 2015, more than 35,000 people died in U.S. traffic crashes, 7 percent more than the previous year. It was the biggest jump in automobile fatalities since 1966. In the first nine months of 2016, meanwhile, fatalities were up 8 percent. Given that more than 90 percent of vehicle crashes involve human error, the idea of safe, self-driving cars has piqued the interest of automakers and government regulators alike.

But how realistic is this technology, and what is its promise? For the answer, we turned to Jimmy O’Dea, an analyst in our Clean Vehicles Program. O’Dea has a doctorate degree in chemistry and was a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University, where he worked on hydrogen fuel cell technology.

There have been a number of news stories lately about self-driving cars. How practical are they? They promise to be safer, but could they have unintended consequences?

Over the last decade, self-driving vehicle technology has improved dramatically.

Back in 2004, the Department of Defense (DOD) offered a $1 million cash prize for any self-driving car that could traverse a 140-mile on- and off-road course across the Mojave Desert from California to the Nevada border. None of the 22 cars in the competition completed the designated route. The best car traveled only 7 miles.

The next year was different: Five cars finished the course.

Then, in 2007, the DOD sponsored a new competition in which self-driving cars had to navigate an urban course while obeying traffic signals and interacting with other cars driven by professional drivers. Six self-driving cars successfully completed the challenge, demonstrating that self-driving cars were potentially viable for real-world conditions.

Fast forward 10 years. Every major automaker now has self-driving cars in development and is vying to get them on road first. Tech companies that develop sensors and software have made Silicon Valley the new Detroit.

Despite the attention these vehicles have gotten recently, a car that can drive itself in any condition at any time is still a decade or more away, depending on who’s talking. In the interim, there will be cars that can drive themselves under a growing number of situations.

The Union of Concerned Scientists hopes this technology’s safety benefits can be realized sooner than later. There are millions of car accidents in the United States each year. Self-driving cars could reduce this number if the technology graduates from its learning permit phase.

Self-driving cars also could have a major impact beyond safety, both good and bad. The convenience of being chauffeured around with door-to-door service could increase the number of cars on the road, which could mean more tailpipe pollution if they aren’t electric. On the other hand, self-driving cars could also provide mobility for many Americans who currently have limited transportation options.

Likewise, self-driving cars could perpetuate our national dependence on personal vehicles and erode public transit. On the other hand, self-driving cars could reduce the cost and increase the convenience of such ride-hailing and ride-sharing services as Uber and Lyft, encouraging more people to forgo owning a vehicle altogether. They also could alleviate some of the many inequities experienced in underserved communities by providing lower cost, more reliable on-demand transportation services.

UCS experts analyzed the potential outcomes of self-driving cars, from safety to jobs to climate change, and came up with seven principles to maximize the benefits of this technology. These principles will guide our work on this technology as it matures beyond speculative—and sometimes sensational—headlines.

Watch Q&A with Dr. Jimmy O'Dea and Dr. Richard Ezike on self-driving cars. 

Jimmy O'Dea is a vehicles analyst in the Clean Vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In his role, he focuses on cleaner vehicle and freight technologies and policies. He earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Puget Sound.