Self-driving cars to take over the world after 2050? I’m not so sure

Even the computer likes to have fun sometimes!

Even the computer likes to have fun sometimes!

Well, it’s official folks — the robots are taking over. A new study by IHS Automotive suggests that nearly all of the vehicles in use after 2050 will be self-driving, getting rid of the weakest link in the automotive chain of being — the driver. And while the self-driving car definitely seems slated for mainstream sales within the next 10 years, the time frame provided by this study strikes me as a little ambitious.

The study predicts that we’ll see self-driving cars account for 0.2% of worldwide sales in 2025, but that will proceed to increase rapidly to 9.2% in 2035, putting roughly 54 million of the vehicles on our roads. This is partly due to the predicted price premium for a self-driving car. IHS says the technology will add between $7,000 to $10,000 to the sticker price in 2025, but that will drop to $5,000 in 2030 and $3,000 in 2035. As that price difference continues to drop, they predict the demise of the human-piloted car “sometime after 2050.”

At first thought, the prediction appears to make sense. Manufacturers have been making great strides in the field of autonomous vehicles — BMW went as far as showing off a self-drifting car at the Consumer Electronics Show this year (featured at the beginning of this article). Nissan has even promised to have multiple autonomous vehicles on sale by 2020. Plus, to most folks driving is merely a chore, and they ought to welcome their robotic chauffeurs with open arms.

However, to replace nearly all the vehicles on the roads with self-driving cars 36 years from now is ambitious because it requires the vast majority of road users to go out and actually buy one. Until the price difference between regular cars and their self-driving equivalent becomes negligible, it’s going to be difficult to convince people to put the money down for new technology. We’ve seen the same issue with hybrids, and in the case of North America, even diesels. Quite a number of folks buy them, but the majority of vehicles on the road today are still purely gasoline-powered thanks to the price premium these vehicles can command.

The length of time that people keep their cars is also an issue. The average age of cars and light trucks owned in the United States, for example, is 11.4 years. An automobile is quite an expensive investment, and most drivers can’t afford to replace vehicles all that often. So, even once the market begins to see reasonably-priced autonomous cars, people will need time to make the jump. Those who prefer to buy second-hand will also need to wait for the used car market to flood with self-driving vehicles.

There’s also a certain degree of skepticism around self-driving cars that could keep many people from switching until they develop a track record in the real world. The software’s reliability is often questioned, and rightly so. Can it discern between hitting a human being or an inanimate object? How will it understand lane boundaries when the road markings are covered in snow? Is there any risk of hackers taking control of vehicles? These, among others, are important questions that people will want concrete answers to before they can commit to an autonomous vehicle.

Ultimately though, this is a teething period like any other — even if it’s not in 2050, autonomous cars will almost certainly catch on some day. With driver error accounting for over 90-percent of automobile accidents in the United States, they will make the roads significantly safer. The software can also be programmed to be far more efficient than most drivers, saving the owner money and reducing pollution. The effects this may have on car culture are a little troubling, but that’s a discussion for another day…

Source: The Detroit News | Image Credit: BMW

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