While watching the news on Dec. 27, I saw a video of a violent crash on the A2 highway in the Netherlands (the video can be seen here). The video, which was shot from the dashboard camera of a Tesla Model X, shows another car clipping a van, causing the van to turn sideways, hit the guardrail, and roll over twice.
Interestingly, the Tesla, which trailed directly behind the affected vehicles, completely avoided the crash. That's because the Tesla was in automatic mode and quickly sensed the change in speed of the cars ahead of it. The automatic systems immediately activated the vehicle's brakes—probably faster than a human could have in the same circumstances.
Much of the concern over the widespread use of automatic vehicles has been safety. Can they operate as safely as human-driven models do? I think the technology has proved they can.
Recently, I had the opportunity to drive the entire length of Route 80 within my home state of Pennsylvania. Since it has no tolls, it is a popular route for east-west truck traffic. I don't think it would be a stretch to say that at least one-third of the vehicles on the road were big rigs, and I have to admit to feeling intimidated at finding myself boxed in on occasion. It did get me to thinking about what traffic would be like if automatic trucks were deployed on a road like that.
I believe that automatic trucks will be safer, not because professional drivers lack skills, but because the drivers around them are less skilled than they are. Once both trucks and cars are automated, they'll possess technology to communicate with each other so that each vehicle will know where the others are and can adjust accordingly.
Another advantage of automation will be improved traffic flow. As cars and trucks talk to each other and to road control systems, vehicles will move at more consistent speeds and closer together than could safely be done with human drivers. This will allow more vehicles on the road and relieve congestion.
Just as with the transition from horse to auto, the adoption of automated vehicles will be accomplished in stages. Automated trucks may be restricted to interstate highways at first, possibly traveling in designated lanes. They might also be limited to driving in caravans with a human driver leading the way.
I believe what will finally drive the wider adoption of autonomous vehicles will be insurance rates. Rates should drop considerably when the safety systems begin reducing insurance claims. This will help offset the cost of the technology. Who among us wouldn't welcome the chance to pay a fraction of what we pay now for our vehicle insurance?