The year is 2025. A call comes to the police station—someone has broken into a local home. A drone is deployed to the address and arrives within five minutes. The drone feeds video to the station and to the closest autonomous (driverless) police vehicle. The drone guides the police car to the location. The officer in the car (we’ll assume he’s human, for now!) isn’t actually driving; he’s an occupant, watching the drone’s video feed. He can see the suspect fleeing, and he researches other crimes in the neighborhood along with potential suspects. The drone estimates the perp’s height and weight, and the officer can see his clothing and a possible gun in his belt. The police officer communicates with other officers in the area to coordinate the capture. As the suspect runs, his description and location is fed constantly to all nearby police vehicles, and he is surrounded within 15 minutes of the initial call.
This is far from fiction. The international consulting firm Frost and Sullivan predicts that 180,000 driverless cars will hit the U.S. market in 2020. That’s less than 1% of today’s annual new car market, but that’s just the beginning!
Just about every major car manufacturer (as well as Google, of course) is developing autonomous vehicles, and the competition is getting more intense as the demand for collision avoidance features grows. Just as drones are spreading (if not yet regulated), driverless cars will become widely accepted. Americans love to drive, but there are too many undeniable advantages to autonomous cars.
The first one is safety. According to the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), 94% of all car accidents are caused by human error. Nearly two million crashes could be avoided if human error were eliminated. That’s not to say that driverless vehicles won’t crash, but, as the technology improves, crash rates will drop like a rock. In 2025, if our roads are still packed with commuters, the occupants of many vehicles will be reading, answering emails, video conferencing and browsing the web. In other words, they’ll be working. A recent Morgan Stanley report predicted that driverless cars could add $5.6 trillion (yes, with a ‘T’) to the global economy because of the combination of a steep reduction in accidents and the dramatic increase in productivity. It is estimated that in 2035 autonomous cars will account for 25% of all cars.
Back to the police force. As driverless cars evolve, routine traffic monitoring will drop, high-speed chases will slowly decline (with drone help) and smaller police forces will focus on more serious crime. Cameras will capture everything—both from the ground and the sky. Officers will become highly trained in electronic law enforcement. Efficiency will rule!
Of course, these are just predicted outcomes. This policing panacea isn’t all roses; it will not eliminate the need for community relationships, direct contact with neighborhoods and personal contact in law enforcement. Furthermore, while vehicle collisions will fall, the cost and maintenance of autonomous cars will remain extremely expensive in the near future. Currently, it costs about $150,000 to equip a driverless car. But that cost will drop to $7,000 by 2030 and to $3,000 by 2035.
Nothing’s perfect. Every emerging concept or technology brings unexpected challenges and unintended consequences. But it appears that autonomous automobiles will emerge soon, and it’s likely that some day we’ll say they are “here to stay.”
For today, I guess I’ll have to drive myself home. What a chore.