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Delivering the Benefits of Self-Driving Technology Safely, Quickly, and Broadly

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Three things that drivers do: accelerate, brake, and steer. Three things drivers don’t do: take naps, write novels, catch up on work, or anything that takes time and doesn’t involve driving.

But self-driving cars could free up two weeks every year for the average driver, according to Chris Urmson, co-founder and CEO of Aurora, who delivered the final talk as part of the U.S. DOT Volpe Center’s Transportation in the Age of Artificial Intelligence and Predictive Analytics speaker series.


Watch video highlights from Urmson's talk as part of Volpe's 2018 speaker series, Transportation in the Age of Artificial Intelligence and Predictive Analytics.

If cars drove themselves, they wouldn’t just give commuters back time. They could vastly improve mobility options for people with disabilities, and they could save thousands of lives.

“We think about the opportunity to save 140 lives a day,” Urmson said. “We think about the fact that 6 million people don’t have access to transportation that they should, and by bringing this technology to market we can enable them to have the mobility that we all take for granted.”

The driver and the rider: two directions for self-driving vehicles

Current levels of vehicle automation require that people be alert and in charge of driving. The future of self-driving vehicles may continue to follow this path, with drivers ultimately responsible for safe vehicle operation. Or, the future may be one of widespread, high-level vehicle automation, where the driver becomes a rider, according to Urmson.

“There’s profound opportunities for change by getting the technology to the point you can sit back and it’s really the technology getting you where you want to go on your day,” Urmson said. “We think about that as riding in the vehicles.”

Automation could bring big transportation cost savings

Opportunities for widespread adoption of self-driving cars aren’t just about improving mobility. According to Urmson’s “cocktail napkin math,” a ride with a transportation network company costs about $1.60 per mile. That’s 60 cents for the vehicle and a dollar for the driver. A vehicle operating at a high level of automation would bring today’s dollar cost for the driver down to 10 cents per mile—and with three trillion miles of road in the United States, that could mean big aggregate cost savings.

“That’s a $300 billion economic opportunity,” Urmson said. “This is really the direction this technology is going to push.”

Success for self-driving cars comes down to improving mobility and safety

The brother of the best man at Urmson’s wedding was in his early 20s when he was paralyzed. He was driving in northern Canada and hit a moose. If vehicle automation had existed then, that accident might never have happened, Urmson said.

“He’s had an incredible career,” Urmson said. “He’s been in politics, he was a cabinet minister in Canada, but throughout that time he has had to rely on others to get around. He never had privacy in his vehicle of transportation. It’s never been on demand the way you or I would take it for granted. So, giving someone like him the mobility and access that we have is just incredible.”


Watch full remarks from Urmson's talk as part of Volpe's 2018 speaker series, Transportation in the Age of Artificial Intelligence and Predictive Analytics.
Updated: Friday, May 31, 2019