The arguments in favor of self-driving cars are many: computer-sorted traffic could yield higher maximum speeds and optimized drive times (sayonara “stop and go,” hello increased fuel efficiency!), the option to drive whether you’ve had too much to drink or not and driverless valet park anywhere you go (as well as make better use of parking space — no more sloppy two-for-one parking jobs). Imagine your vehicle driving itself off to a maintenance facility without your assistance, returning home on its own, or the option to be as distracted as you like while your vehicle’s escorting you around, from texting to watching a video to catching up on your notes for a morning work meeting. (Infographic)

In theory, an exhaustively thorough autonomous driving system would result in fewer traffic accidents, with computers responding to navigational information far more reliably (and accurately) than a human could. Even a hybrid scenario in which both autonomous and human-driven vehicles shared the road might be safer, with self-driven vehicles capable of reacting more quickly (and optimally) to life-threatening situations, say responding to a vehicle braking hard ahead, racing over a sudden swatch of black ice or avoiding an oncoming vehicle along a divided highway that suddenly rockets across the median toward you. Think of all the traffic incidents (and deaths) caused by drivers ignoring stoplights or stop signs, clipping or directly slamming into vehicles that have the right of way. Spatially “aware” autonomous vehicles might be capable of sensing a vehicle approaching at clearly unsafe velocities before proceeding through an intersection. It’s not that autonomous vehicles would be guaranteed accident-free, but the idea’s that they’d be much less likely to have accidents, better able to react to life-threatening situations than more error-prone humans.

According to Futurist Thomas Frey, driverless cars are part of a larger trend, shifting from ‘just-in-case’ to ‘just-in-time’ lifestyles. “We own cars just-in-case we need to go somewhere. That all changes if we can summon a vehicle any time we need it (just-in-time).”

Frey goes on to say, “Today 144 million Americans spend an average of 52 minutes a day in their car, most of it spent commuting to and from work. In the future, we will not show up for work just-in-case we need to be there. Rather, we will figure out schemes for being there just-in-time, either virtually or physically, as business needs dictate.”

Assuming that’s all technically plausible in the near term, which car companies are poised to win this race?

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