Skip to content

Why We Can’t Live Without Autonomous Vehicles

Share this Story on Facebook, X, Text, LinkedIn, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, or Outlook

What if an airliner, loaded with 400 passengers, fell from the sky, killing everyone aboard? What if it happened every year? Every week? Every day?

What if it happened every three hours?

You’d probably think twice before booking airfare for your next vacation.

Yet collectively we think nothing of getting in our cars every day, despite the fact that 1.2 million people die each year in automobile accidents worldwide. This is the rough equivalent of that hypothetical jumbo jet dropping from the sky every few hours. 38,000 of those actual recorded deaths are in the United States alone according to the National Safety Council. Automobile fatalities are the #1 cause of death globally for people aged 3-34 years old. $1 trillion in economic damage occurs just in the U.S. each year via car accidents. Despite our remarkable vehicle safety advancements and improvements, such as seatbelts (1959), anti-lock brakes (1971), airbags (1973) and ‘automatic collision avoidance’ technology (2003), we had not found a solution to this preventable epidemic of death and destruction. Until now.

The answer is elegantly simple. We human beings thus far still remain part of the driving equation.

Remove that core element, and everything changes. This technological evolution in human affairs is unstoppable, and autonomous/driverless vehicles will literally reshape our economy, culture and ultimately our world. But let’s unpack these radical pronouncements, and first accept that it’s not far-off fantasy; it’s already happening all around us, right where we live and breathe, right now.

Horribly, human error is responsible for 94 percent of vehicle crashes in the world. Let that number sink in. Part of this awful figure is the 70% of drivers who admit to using their mobile phones while driving. Plus 112 million annually who operate vehicles under the influence of alcohol. Then add the millions more who drive while fatigued, medicated, with failing eyesight and reaction times, and are possibly otherwise impaired or distracted. The obvious solution and alternative to accidents and deaths is to remove the human driver–every human driver–from the driving equation.

Is that really safer, you ask? If you’ve seen recent news reports, you’ve heard of a Tesla Motors accident in Florida, where a Model-S drove down a highway in semi-autonomous “AutoPilot” mode, which failed to recognize a tractor-trailer pulling out in front of it. The Model-S went under the trailer–at full speed–shearing off its roof and killing the driver, who as early accident reports indicated, was not only not paying attention to the road, but was also watching a Harry Potter movie on a portable DVD player. Until this accident, Tesla vehicles had collectively driven more than 130 million miles with the semi-autonomous “AutoPilot” feature engaged. This is significant, since in the United States there is an auto fatality every 94 million miles on average. Worldwide, there is an auto fatality every 60 million miles.

Semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles are being developed and can save us from ourselves. In May of 2013, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its official policy on autonomous vehicle development, which is to provide guidance to the states and permit testing of emerging vehicle technologies on their roads. New and updated NHTSA guidelines are imminent and expected in July of 2016. These forward-looking parameters will specifically identify which aspects of autonomous vehicle regulation will be uniform and which will be left to the states’ discretion. NHTSA created four levels of autonomy; Function-specific Automation (Level 1); Combined Function Automation (Level 2); Limited Self-Driving Automation (Level 3); and Full Self-Driving Automation (Level 4).

As the levels ascend, automation takes over, arriving finally at Level 4, in which a vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. This design anticipates that a human will provide destination or navigation input, but this “driver” is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles. At Level 4, there is not even the reassuring presence of a steering wheel or a brake pedal.

Here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, all four levels of vehicle autonomy are already on our roads. Ford’s 2016 lineup of vehicles offers menus incorporating more than 30 different options of semi-autonomous (Level 1-2) features. In June of 2015, Virginia designated a 70-mile circle, encompassing Interstates 66, I-495, I-95, and State Routes 29 and 50, as “Virginia Automated Corridors,” marking them as locations where automakers can test each level and mode of autonomous vehicle operation. These corridors also include two test tracks: the Virginia International Raceway, and the Virginia Smart Road at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. Governor McAuliffe and the General Assembly have worked in tandem to ensure there are no statutory or regulatory barriers to members of the automotive industry who wish to test automated and autonomous vehicles in Virginia. This form of ‘naturalistic’ testing is extremely vital to the autonomous vehicle industry–an industry projected to spend more than $25 billion on research and have more than 10 million autonomous vehicles on the road by 2020.

While fully-autonomous vehicles (Level 4) remain 20 to 30 years away, both the Governor and General Assembly in Richmond have shown commendable leadership together, getting well ahead of and in front of this emerging technology. Our elected lawmakers here agree that it’s not too early to get into what Ford Motor Company alone believes will prove to be a $5.4 trillion per year autonomous transportation marketplace. For perspective, the entire current automotive industry, which is expected to hit peak production in 2017, is currently estimated at $2 trillion annually. Better yet, McKinsey & Company predicts that by the time self-driving cars become our primary form of transport (sometime prior to 2050), the total number of vehicle crashes will have decreased by 90 percent, with a potential for a combined and total cash savings of more than $190 billion per year. This is to say nothing of the human factor: plummeting fatalities, a fraction of the injuries and almost omnipresent safety when traveling.

And with all those priceless lives preserved and piles of money saved on car repairs, you just might have to book your flight and vacation a whole lot earlier.

For the past eight years, Christopher West has been the Director of Government Relations and Grassroots Outreach at Jackson-West Consulting, LLP, a full-service and bi-partisan government and public affairs firm based in Alexandria, Virginia.

For the latest in autonomous vehicle news follow Chris on Twitter @L4AutoUSA.

For comments and questions, please reach out to him at

For the latest in autonomous vehicle news follow Chris on Twitter @L4AutoUSA.

For comments and questions, please reach out to him at

E-Mail this Author

Share this Story on Facebook, X, Text, LinkedIn, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, or Outlook

Join Our Email List

Sign me up for:
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.