The driverless car being developed by Google may be the most important innovation in vehicle safety since safety belts. If Google meets its goals for reduction in traffic accidents, then millions of people could be saved from injury or death and billions of dollars could be saved.
Google’s driverless car technology uses sensors and cameras to detect the physical form of the road, read signs and watch for vehicles and pedestrians. The car uses the data to adjust speed and steering and apply the brakes.
Sebastian Thrun, Google’s lead developer of its driverless car technology, has made the claim that the system will one day be able to reduce traffic accidents by 90 percent. In 2009, there were approximately 5.5 million car accidents in the United States, with 9.5 million vehicles involved. There were 33,808 traffic deaths and 2.2 million people were injured, with 240,000 requiring hospitalization.
The financial cost of traffic accidents is enormous as well. The American Automobile Association (AAA) studied data from automobile crashes in the 99 largest urban areas in the country and arrived at a cost estimate of $299.5 billion. Extrapolating from AAA’s figures, it is estimated that the nationwide cost is about $450 billion. This includes damage to property, productivity loss, medical costs, and lowered quality of life.
Google’s bold claim is that its technology can save nearly 30,000 lives per year in the United States, prevent almost 2 million injuries and reduce costs from traffic accidents by $400 billion per year. The claim may seem extravagant, but it is based in the simple reality that nearly all traffic accidents are caused by human error. Machines do fail, but not nearly as often as humans do.
On a global scale, the potential impact on traffic safety would be even greater. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are approximately 1.2 million traffic deaths in the world each year, and nearly 50 million injuries. The problem is expected to get worse. By 2030, the WHO estimates that traffic accidents will be the fifth leading cause of death in the world, or 3.6 percent of total deaths. This would be a startling increase from 2004, when auto collisions were the ninth leading cause of deaths in the world, at 2.2 percent of the total.
The driverless car concept has implications beyond safety as well. Google claims that its technology can also reduce wasted time during commutes by allowing cars to drive faster and closer together, relieving traffic jams. According to one study, traffic jams waste 1.9 billion gallons of gas and 4.8 billion hours of drivers’ time each year. In monetary terms, that amounts to $101 billion in gasoline costs and loss of productivity.
In addition, driverless cars could theoretically reduce the number of cars needed in a community, as sharing of vehicles would become more efficient. After all, most people only use their vehicle at certain times during the day, leaving most cars unused about 95 percent of the time. The technology could have a positive impact on reducing pollution, and developing countries may be able to reduce vehicle-intensive development if fewer cars are needed.