The sight of a well-dressed professional pulling out his laptop and typing emails during the morning commute is an everyday occurrence for riders on the Metro. In the not-too-distant future, drivers who now grit their teeth in soul-crushing Beltway traffic may be able relax and use their commutes productively too, as designers of self-driving — or autonomous — vehicles promise the technology is moving closer to reality.
"It gives you the freedom to do what you are already doing in the car today, but unsafely. Today people sit in the car and they are texting. We have seen people on the freeway practicing the trombone. It is unbelievable what people do in a car," said Chris Urmson, the leader of Google's self-driving vehicle project based in California, who spoke at a seminar on the policy implications of autonomous vehicles at the Swedish embassy in Washington on Tuesday.
The seminar's host, Volvo, a leader in autonomous vehicle research, tests its cars in Sweden and Spain. Google tests its cars in stop-and-go traffic in San Francisco as well as freeways in the bay area.
Self-driving vehicles are likely years from becoming commonplace on U.S. roads, so it is impossible now to fully grasp the dimensions of the changes that would be caused by the technology. Because the cars are being designed to navigate traffic more safely and smoothly than any human being can, developers see a future with few crashes and traffic violations and with dramatically reduced congestion. That would affect car insurers, law enforcement, safety regulators, and transportation planners.
"If you look at the carrying capacity of U.S. freeways when they are at maximum throughput — the most vehicles moving by per hour — they are only using about 8 percent of the road," Urmson said. "If you imagine a vehicle that is reacting more quickly and steering more accurately than a person, then you can pack those vehicles more closely and you can take the same infrastructure we have today and easily double the throughput on it, removing congestion completely."
More efficient use of existing highways would ease the pressure to build new ones, allowing planners to focus finite resources on other pressing infrastructure needs, Urmson said.
Future motorists would not have to relinquish complete control of their cars. They would have a choice between driving themselves or letting the computers, radar, laser, and image processing technology do it for them.
The primary goal of autonomous vehicles is saving lives by reducing the staggering number of traffic fatalities that happen in the U.S. Relieving congestion is one way to make driving safer.
Nobody at the seminar was able to estimate what a self-driving vehicle might cost compared to a regular car, but they said the technology is likely to be introduced into the U.S. vehicle fleet incrementally. Volvo and other car-makers already install adaptable cruise control in some vehicles, for instance.