Road trips. Drive-throughs. Shopping malls. Freeways. Car chases. Road rage. Cars changed the world in all sorts of unforeseen ways. They granted enormous personal freedom, but in return they imposed heavy costs. People working on autonomous vehicles generally see their main benefits as mitigating those costs, notably road accidents, pollution and congestion. GM’s boss, Mary Barra, likes to talk of “zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.” AVs, their champions argue, can offer all the advantages of cars without the drawbacks.

In particular, AVs could greatly reduce deaths and injuries from road accidents. Globally, around 1.25m people die in such accidents each year, according to the WHO; it is the leading cause of death among those aged 15-29. Another 20m-50m people are injured. Most accidents occur in developing countries, where the arrival of autonomous vehicles is still some way off. But if the switch to AVs can be advanced even by a single year, “that’s 1.25m people who don’t die,” says Chris Urmson of Aurora, an AV startup. In recent decades cars have become much safer thanks to features such as seat belts and airbags, but in America road deaths have risen since 2014, apparently because of distraction by smartphones. AVs would let riders text (or drink) to their heart’s content without endangering anyone.


To take advantage of much lower operating costs per mile, most AVs are almost certain to be electric, which will reduce harmful emissions of two kinds: particulates, which cause lung and heart diseases, and climate-changing greenhouse gases. Even electric vehicles, however, still cause some particulate emissions from tyre and road wear, and the drop in greenhouse-gas emissions depends on how green the power grid is. The switch to electric vehicles will require more generating capacity (UBS estimates that it will increase European electricity consumption by 20-30% by 2050) and new infrastructure, such as charging stations and grid upgrades. For urban dwellers, the benefits will be better air quality and less noise.

Whether AVs will be able to reduce congestion is much less clear. The lesson of the 20th century is that building more roads to ease congestion encourages more car journeys. If robotaxis are cheap and fast, people will want to use them more. Yet there are reasons to think that the roads would become less crowded. Widespread sharing of vehicles would make much more efficient use of road space; computer-controlled cars can be smart about route planning; and once they are widespread, AVs can travel closer together than existing cars, increasing road capacity.

What is certain is that riders who no longer have to drive will gain an enormous amount of time that can be used to work, play or socialise. “Americans can take back a total of 30bn hours per year that they now spend driving, sitting in traffic or looking for a parking space,” says BCG.


Read the full article on The Economist website here.