Would you ride in a vehicle driven autonomously by a computer? Fitted with sensors, cameras, digital radar, and the ability to communicate with surrounding cars, the driverless car sounds like something out of a futuristic movie.

Imagine relaxing, putting your feet up, and reading a good book – all on the way to work. Or even catching fifteen extra minutes of sleep! It sounds like a blissful commute that only requires you to do one critical thing to make it a reality: trust a computer.

That one factor may not seem so easy to you. Logically, driverless cars make sense to the auto industry as it can solve one of their biggest challenges: minimizing car accidents. However, your personal enthusiasm for driverless cars will likely depend on what you think of the drivers who share the road with you.

There are those in favor of driverless cars because of the promise they bring to improve the safety of driving. There are also those who don’t want technology interfering with the driving experience. Perhaps because of these opposing views, the era of driverless cars will not come suddenly or smoothly, and there may be some unforeseen side effects to computer-controlled cars.

Let’s look at the effects that driverless cars could have on our roads.

The Pros and Cons of Driverless Cars

Road Congestion

It’s thought that driverless cars could reduce congestion by decreasing the number of accidents and maintaining more consistent driving speeds. If they enable traffic to move more easily, however, that might encourage more road use, which may affect the extent of this benefit. It’s also possible that car owners in cities could try to avoid expensive parking costs by keeping their vehicles permanently driving.

Road Trips

If driving becomes less of a hassle, we could end up going on more road trips than before. Put a bed in a driverless car and it’s an instant mobile hotel – making it much more enjoyable to be in a vehicle for 10 hours, overnight and on an Interstate. If these longer trips become more bearable, you could decide to save some money and choose your driverless car over buying a plane or train ticket. However, there is bound to be a negative impact on drivers of buses, taxis and trucks.

Foot Traffic

It’s also unclear how driverless cars will affect the behavior of pedestrians. For now, crossing a road on foot in a busy city is dangerous, and needs to be done with extreme caution at designated crossings. But if a pedestrian walks out in front of a driverless car, it will stop. As a result, automated cars could help to smooth traffic flow and increased pedestrian safety.

More Independence and Free Time

Autonomous technology will allow the generation now retired, or on the verge of retiring, to command a vehicle for the rest of their lives, hugely extending their freedom of transportation as they age.

By replacing drivers with passengers, commuters will have time on their hands for rest, work or entertainment in their vehicle. That’s expected to create a new “passenger economy” of in-car entertainment and connected working services. Passengers could also save more money,because if driverless cars never have accidents, car insurance premiums will almost certainly reduce.

Looking Ahead

The next decade isn’t only focused on manual or driverless cars, but something in between – the semi-autonomous car. Cars will begin to slowly adopt autonomous features, like automatic braking systems and forward-collision warning technology.

Whether cars ever become truly driverless depends not only on advances in technology, but on how we think and behave around them. It’s ironic that the machines may need to become more human to convince drivers to take their hands off the wheel. Expect to keep a finger on that override button until the last manual car disappears from the road. Only then will the driverless car era truly begin.

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Jamie Carter

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Jamie Carter

Jamie Carter is a science writer specializing in emerging technology. His work has appeared in many international publications including TechRadar, Scientific American, Sky & Telescope, the South China Morning Post, The Telegraph and The Guardian. He tweets at @jamieacarter.

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