Ordinary Americans can't buy intelligent, self-driving cars just yet, but the technology could someday revolutionize one of the nation's most common road rituals — the morning and evening commutes that bookend the workday for millions of people.
The transformation of that bleary-eyed, coffee-chugging routine won't take place overnight — Nevada just issued the world's first license for a self-driving vehicle to Google on May 7. But the gradual switch to a hands-off driving approach promises perks including saving on gas money, faster commutes and the luxury of texting on smartphones without risking a crash.
"We've been working on this and thinking about it for the past 10 years or so," said Peter Stone, director of the Learning Agents Research Group at the University of Texas in Austin. "The point of this research is to consider the implications for having all or most of the cars on the road being autonomous."
Take a rest on the road
Today's drivers must give up hours of their day to the daily drive back and forth from work. Tomorrow's self-driving car owners can settle back in the comfort of their ride to get a start on work emails, browse the news headlines or catch up on a favorite TV show — all without worrying about getting lost, switching lanes on the highway or squeezing into tiny parking spaces.
"These kinds of systems will be to the point where you can flip a switch and they'll be fully autonomous," Stone told InnovationNewsDaily. "Many cars can already park themselves and have active cruise control."
Goodbye to red lights
Traffic lights may go extinct once self-driving cars rule the road. Tomorrow's self-driving cars could "talk" wirelessly using an automated system that calculates the paths for cars to make turns or whiz through intersections without stopping.
Such intersections could shrink average road delays by as much as 100 times in the most extreme circumstances, Stone said. He and his colleagues previously created a simulation showing cars streaming past one another at an intersection with only the slightest slowdowns in speed — a somewhat terrifying sight for today's drivers. But such changes would only be possible once everyone owns a self-driving car.
"We found that most benefits of autonomous intersections don't really kick in until most cars on road are autonomous [a 90 percent penetration level]," Stone explained. "But at every point along the way, we found small benefits for people with autonomous cars."
Save on gas money
Early adopters of self-driving cars may find themselves stopping less often to fill up on gas (or recharge the batteries of electric or hybrid plug-in cars). That's because a self-driving car could quickly and precisely calculate how much to step on the gas pedal or when to begin braking before a stop sign.
"You can imagine the ability of cars to accelerate or decelerate a lot more smoothly on our current roadways, so that they reduce fuel usage and emissions," Stone said.
Some penny-pinching drivers already practice "hypermiling" techniques to avoid wasting fuel with excessive acceleration or braking. But self-driving cars could automatically spread such energy-saving habits to everyone.
People on today's roads face a gauntlet of distracted drivers, drunk drivers or sleepy drivers. Self-driving cars could go a long way toward eliminating such dangers by taking over control from addled, error-prone human drivers — especially if self-driving cars talk to each other to discuss road or traffic conditions.
The rise of self-driving cars could also reduce number of crashes and deaths among vehicle drivers and passengers. About 33,000 people die on U.S. roads each year, according to a AAA study conducted by Cambridge Systematics in 2011. Total U.S. crashes tacked on the added financial cost of almost $300 billion annually.
Shared cars for everyone
Self-driving cars may end up cementing the dream of private car ownership, but they could also give a boost to car-sharing among those who don't own cars — a hybrid of car-rental programs such as Zipcar and automated roving taxis. That would allow even people who don't own cars to join in on the newly improved work commute of the 21st century.
Such car-sharing could make more efficient use of cars that would otherwise sit idly in parking lots during the day. The cars could also come directly to a person's home for pickup, as opposed to requiring people to walk to the nearest car-share parking lot.
"You don't need so many cars parked and taking up space when they could be driving off on their own to be reused," Stone said.