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Though self-driving cars are still decades away in development, researchers, government officials, and industry executives have been considering how these vehicles might change the world. As noted by Wired, they’ve speculated whether people, liberated from having to drive a car, would live farther from work, or maybe ditch their personal cars for a shared Uber ride.
But now, Scott Hardman, a researcher at the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies who looks at how people respond to new fuels and travel technologies, has theorized how people will travel 10 years from now. He thinks that in order to do this, it’s useful to study partially automated car features available now, such as Tesla’s Autopilot.
Autopilot, along with General Motors’ Super Cruise, Nissan’s ProPilot Assist, BMW’s Driving Assistant, and Ford’s Co-pilot 360, is an advanced driver-assistance feature that while they won’t do the driving for you, they’ll help. Depending on the system, their features include automatically keeping within and changing lanes, hitting the brakes, or swerving out of the way of something in the road. However, the two important caveats are that most of the systems were built to operate on relatively uncomplicated highways, and the person behind the wheel is meant to be paying attention, ready to take control.
In a paper published earlier this year, Hardman interviewed 35 people who owned Teslas with Autopilot, and found that most thought the feature made driving less burdensome. “The perception by drivers is that it takes away a large portion of the task of driving, so they feel more relaxed, less tired, less stressed,” Hardman reportedly said. “It lowers the cognitive burden of driving.”
Moreover, in another research by Hardman and postdoctoral researcher Debapriya Chakraborty released this month, they argue that making driving less terrible leads to more driving, naturally. Using data from a survey of 630 Tesla owners with and without Autopilot, the researchers found that motorists with partial automation drive on average 4,888 more miles per year than similar owners without the feature. The analysis accounted for income and commute, along with the type of community the car owners live in. Because of these findings, the researchers deduce that it may be that partially automated vehicles are already influencing how people travel, live, consume resources, and affect the climate. However, it must be noted that researchers have relied on mostly anecdotes for their study.
As noted by Wired, the U.S. is made up of increasingly sprawling communities, where people blithely travel hundreds of miles to get to work or play, and doing this via autonomous or sort-of-autonomous vehicles isn’t an efficient or sustainable option as one might believe. In fact, shifting commute patterns could affect public transportation budgets and road maintenance schedules. More miles traveled means infrastructure gets more of a pounding. Governments still haven’t quite figured out how to charge electric vehicles for travel. And though EVs like Teslas rely on cleaner energy than those guzzling gas, the electricity still has to come from somewhere, which doesn’t always come from a renewable source.
And yet, the aforementioned research also highlights the upsides to partial automation. Hardman and Chakraborty actually found that the bulk of the extra thousands of miles that Autopilot drivers traveled each year happened on long weekend trips, which prior to Autopilot, those drivers might have opted to fly instead. So since that would have generated more greenhouse gas emissions, in the end, their decision to stick to the road was likely the more climate-friendly choice.
However, in addition to potentially posing an environmental hindrance, partly automated vehicles are already involved in road safety hazards, which have resulted in fatal car collisions. Two middle-aged men in Texas died when the misleadingly named “Full Self Driving Autopilot” feature on the 2019 Tesla Model S failed to navigate a curve and crashed into a tree at a high rate of speed. The crash sparked a battery fire that first responders were unable to extinguish for over four hours. As told by CNN, the head of the police precinct that responded to the crash reported that “investigators are certain no one was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash.” Now, advocates are placing part of the blame on federal vehicle safety regulators for the death of the two passengers.