As technology moves forward, people will always be looking for excuses to pump the brakes.
The first recorded death caused by a motor vehicle occurred in 1869 when Mary Ward was run over by a steam car built by her cousins. Steam cars were thought to be the wave of the future prior, and at the time the speed limit on country roads was 4 mph. In towns, it was 2 mph. Mary was thrown from the car while on a wild steam car ride, and then run over by the car’s wheels, with the cause of death being listed as a broken neck. To us, this may all sound like the setup to a Tim Burton movie, but at the time it was likely horrifying. A lot of naysayers got to naysay accordingly.
(Cause of death: Wacky Races.)
You can’t really have a futurology podcast without broaching this topic, and you can’t broach this topic without dealing with doubters. Naysayers aren’t going away any time soon. They’ve been here for every step of technological progress, from flight, to space travel, to home computers. They will sometimes be right, as was the case with ideas like amphibious cars or the Flying Flea craft.The new direction in which to wag one’s finger and scowl isn’t in the designs of vehicles, however, but in who, or what, is driving them.
On May 7th of 2016, the first death caused by a self-driving car occurred. Joshua Brown, much like Mary Ward, has history’s undignified award of being the first of what will assuredly be many deaths caused by a jump in automotive technology. For Mr. Brown, the details are still questionable. It’s not the first accident in a self-driving car—that would likely be Google’s fender bender earlier that year—but it was far more important.
One of the biggest threats that innovation in a field like this will face is public perception. In previous accidents involving self-driving or assisted-driving vehicles, there are always questions that try to eliminate the possibility of a human error as the cause. In the example of the Google car accident, the test driver mistakenly believed that a bus driver would slow down. It did not. In other accidents that have occurred, Tesla has verified that manual driving mode was engaged prior to the accident.
The public is quick to lap up stories about these accidents. If you ask your average man on the street about self-driving vehicles, most have two scenarios in mind: Knight Rider, or the Terminator on wheels.
(Actual footage of Tesla vehicles.)
But a quick look at the statistics, and it’s already pretty easy to see just why self-driving cars are still less deadly than their meat mitt maneuvered counterparts:
- Traffic fatalities in 2015: 38,300
- Self-driving vehicles fatalities in 2016: 1
Maybe it’s just a slow year for Skynet. You may be saying, “Sure, Aaron, but there aren’t that many self-driving cars on the road right now.” You may also be saying, “I’m sick of this article and I want to go back to watching Stranger Things.” I hear you on both counts, but check this out: There will be an estimated 20 million self-driving cars on the road by 2020. To put it in comparison, there are currently 1.015 billion cars in the world and 253 million in the United States. 20 million isn’t exactly a dent, but it’s nothing to scoff at, and it’s a little more than a hobby when you consider those 20 million are going to be designed to share the road with a vastly larger non-automated portion of vehicles.
So really, why should you care about self-driving cars?
The most obvious benefit is going to be being able to share vehicles. self-driving vehicles could drastically cut down on vehicle buying and ownership rates for your average, dyed-in-the-wool normie. Consider that the average cost of maintaining and operating a motor vehicle will run you around $8,698 a year, and that’s not including the actual cost of buying the thing. Now imagine an Uber-esque system of paying as you go, or a subscription plan to rent cars for blocks of time that could cost less per month than what you pay to eat out.
The idea of ride sharing, combined with a move toward renewable resources for vehicles, could translate into much cheaper transportation that would even rival the supposed affordability of taking the bus. Something which, by the way, could cost you $116.50 per month in New York City. It doesn’t even include express buses. The monsters.
We’ve already covered the automobile fatality stats in the United States alone, but worldwide, there are around 1.25 million every year. If you ever want to feel bad about life, there are plenty of shock video sites with footage of car and truck accidents in China to slake your thirst for blood.
(Or you could just watch this while eating General Tso’s. Please don’t email us about how General Tso’s Chicken isn’t real Chinese food. We know. You know. General Tso General Knows.)
Self-driving cars aren’t just about having a GPS that drives for you because you’re too fat and lazy to push a wheel around with your french fry grease-slicked fingers. They also have cameras, motion detectors, and proximity alerts that perform real time calculations to know when to turn, how quickly, when to brake, and when to punch it when the sheriff is chasing you and your brother down the back roads of wherever the hell Hazard County is.
Are they perfect? Obviously not. No technology is going to be right out of the gate. There are a lot of companies, like Google and Tesla, throwing big money at the idea though. There are a lot of people dying every year in car crashes that don’t really need to die in car crashes. There’s going to be people who make poor decisions, like taking control of a self-driving vehicle while intoxicated, but that’s what these vehicles are here to do, essentially: save us from ourselves.