Self-driving cars: ‘A vaccine that can save lives’

Road accidents kill more 1.2 million people on the world’s roads every year. One transport expert believes autonomous vehicles could end this 'epidemic'.

For many millions of people, the working weekday starts with the commute to work by car. How long does it take you? Half an hour? In that 30 minutes of idling, overtaking and searching for a parking space, nearly 70 people have died on the world’s roads.

If road accidents were a disease, it would be one of epidemic proportions; 1.2 million people die on the roads every year, almost as many as those who pass away from diabetes complications. And for Larry Burns, a professor of engineering at the University of Michigan who also consults for Google, robot cars could be the cure for one of the world’s biggest causes of deaths.

Speaking after a panel discussion at the BBC Future World-Changing Ideas Summit in New York on 21 October, Burns said that the first designs for driverless, autonomous cars could be ready to roll out onto the roads as early as 2017. The main problem is that the world is not quite ready to accept them – due to issues over liability, regulation or just the fact that people aren’t yet ready to accept a car driving them to their destination.

“But the way I see that, I see it much like we’ve created a vaccine that can save a lot of lives, and now we have to work through that risk process of getting that vaccine out in a large quantity to as many people to benefit them,” he told BBC Future’s Jack Stewart.

Some engineers believe autonomous cars could be five times safer than one driven by a human. As Burns explained, the cars are never drunk, or sleepy or distracted, their sensors able to discern objects two football fields ahead – and with “eyes” facing behind, they don’t have a blind spot either.

At the summit, Burns debated the challenges facing the autonomous car with Michelin Design Challenge’s Ben Ebel and MIT researcher Bryan Reimer. The panel discussion showed the quandary that those working with robot vehicles are facing: the technology needs to be proven to be safe before it can be introduced to the wider world, but a cautious approach means more and more people could die needless deaths due to road accidents.

So what is the biggest obstacle standing in the way? “I think it’s getting the first chance to prove the full capability of a driverless car,” Burns said. “Police organisations and traffic safety experts are correct in saying there are risks in learning. You have to learn all those really unusual things you come across when you drive around on roads. And once you see those you can do something with this technology. You’re not going to discover these in a laboratory or on a proving ground – you’re going to have to discover them on public roads.

“There is some risk in that learning process, so we have to find a way to allow us to keep learning on public roads while managing that risk intelligently.

“I’m hoping an enlightened community or enlightened state will step up and say, ‘Hey, we want to be a first mover here.’ Because if we can try it out in one place and prove it I think the world will see what’s possible and that will get us to a tipping point to really get going.”

Discover more ideas from the World-Changing Ideas Summit

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