Going Down The Road -- In A Car That Drives Itself

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - SEPTEMBER 25:  A Google self-driving car is displayed at the Google headquarters on September 25, 2012 in
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: A Google self-driving car is displayed at the Google headquarters on September 25, 2012 in Mountain View, California. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed State Senate Bill 1298 that allows driverless cars to operate on public roads for testing purposes. The bill also calls for the Department of Motor Vehicles to adopt regulations that govern licensing, bonding, testing and operation of the driverless vehicles before January 2015. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

DAVOS, SWITZERLAND -- I've just come from an amazing discussion by some brilliant people about how connected vehicles and transportation systems will transform mobility. The discussion focused on how self-driving cars will improve road safety and traffic flow and reduce transportation's carbon footprint.

The idea is that if cars on the roadway can connect with one another and with the roadway itself, there will be fewer accidents and the system will function more efficiently. Cars will drive themselves, and the driver is freed up to do other things. The president of UPS's international division said his drivers typically make 200 deliveries a day. If a UPS truck were smart enough to drive itself, the driver could ready the package for delivery and process the paperwork while enroute. Driver efficiency would rise and fuel consumption would drop.

Imagine your car taking you from your driveway at home to your office's parking lot without you having to touch the wheel. It would be commuter heaven. Long drive times would not be as oppressive now that you could do other things during transit, such as read a book, surf the web, or watch a university lecture. And since the cars of tomorrow will be electric, the concern for exhaust fumes will have gone away.

Europe has been funding research on self-driving cars for more than a decade under a program called Intelligent Co-operative Systems. The project's website catalogues the incredible array of benefits when such a system is fully introduced. They include increased road network capacity, reduced congestion and pollution, shorter and more predictable journey times, improved traffic safety for all road users, and lower vehicle operating costs.

Additional benefits are more efficient logistics, improved management and control of the road network (both urban and inter-urban), increased efficiency of the public transport systems, and better and more efficient response to hazards, incidents and accidents.

Google is also leading the way in research. Google-designed self-driving cars are used in the search engine giant's street-level photos of cities around the world. The project was put in motion by former Google vice-president Sebastian Thrun, now director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and co-inventor of Google Street View. He was one of the session's panelists.

Google's driverless cars have logged more than 480,000 kilometres without the technology ever being responsible for an accident. One car had an accident while a driver was controlling the vehicle, and a second car was hit from behind at a stoplight.

Technology journalist Jeff Jarvis in the audience asked what the timeline is for self-driving cars, and Mr. Thrun said within five years. Mr. Thrun, a great evangelist for self-driving cars, said the first time in the vehicle is exhilarating. Within 10 minutes people are willing to trust the car totally. In normal driving the car's controls are better than the best human drivers. Passengers feel uncomfortable when the human driver takes over.

But accidents will be sure to happen, and the question that was put to the Davos audience was: Would the citizens of your country accept some level of fatalities in accidents caused by "technology failure" attributed to a centrally controlled system, in exchange for fewer overall transportation fatalities provided by reduced human error? Only 46 percent said yes, while 54 percent said no. This prompted an interesting discussion on technology failures on planes and trains.

The audience was also asked: Autonomous transportation systems require a free flow of information between transportation providers. Will governments accept facilitating and/or managing the process and liabilities associated with this information exchange? The audience was divided between 53 percent Yes and 47 percent No.

Don Tapscott is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management and the author of 14 books. He just released a TED book (with Anthony D. Williams) called Radical Openness: Four Unexpected Principles for Success. You can follow him on Twitter @dtapscott.
Originally published in TheGlobeandMail.com