Human drivers at the wheel may soon be extinct

Everyone knows cars are terrible investments. They plummet in value the minute they’re driven off the dealer’s lot and, when you’re done with them a few years later, you’re lucky to get a pack of chewing gum on the trade-in.

But to the enterprising individual, that may not be the case for much longer. Self-driving cars could in fact make a few lucky people rich, provided they’re willing to invest in the regular, ­human-driven kind first.

Here’s the proposition: buy up a bunch of current cars – the less technology in them, the better – as well as a good-sized parcel of land, preferably an hour or so outside a major city. Wait a decade or so and transform the land into a racetrack.

Then watch as people flock to the track and pay to drive your cars. They’ll do so because it will be illegal to manually drive on city streets and highways – robots would have taken over that task exclusively. All you have to do is sit back and get rich.

Sounds insane, right? Maybe, but I recently floated the idea to a senior executive at General Motors and his response was as good as it gets for an executive who sells vehicles for a living: “It’s not crazy”.

Too many people still think the advent of self-driving cars is something out of science fiction. But they’re arriving fast and they will usher in dramatic changes to our laws and traffic grids just as quickly. We’re going to need to prepare for the eventuality that we won’t be able to drive freely, like we do today, in the near future.

Many vehicles already have self-driving features. Ford cars have been able to parallel park on their own for a few years, while Subaru’s EyeSight system uses forward cameras to automatically avoid collisions. Tesla vehicles can do much of their own driving – they’re just waiting for the laws to catch up that will officially allow them to do so.

Rather than self-driving vehicles arriving wholesale, the various bits of technology that make them possible are getting better and cheaper. This is driving a gradual transition that is happening under our noses.

To that end, US-based BI Intelligence expects 10 million self-driving cars – or vehicles with autonomous functions in them – will be on the road by 2020. Fully autonomous options are expected to debut in 2019.

It’s a safe bet to make, given the competition. Traditional car makers, including Mercedes, BMW and Nissan, are determined not to let Google beat them to the punch. Tesla, Uber and possibly even Apple are also pushing ahead.

Laws move at a notoriously slower pace than technology, but changes will accelerate as the data becomes too overwhelming to ignore. Google has so far reported that its cars have been involved in 18 accidents, including a slow-motion collision with a public bus in California last month, but almost all of those have been the fault of the other driver – a human.

The accident numbers are impressive given that Google vehicles have now logged a 2.5 million kilometres over seven years of testing.

Conversely, getting in accidents – often serious and deadly – is something humans continue to be good at. More than 32,000 people, or 10 individuals per 100,000 population, die in car accidents in the United States each year. The UAE experiences a similar rate. Car death is an epidemic, up there with cancer and heart disease.

Many experts believe the life-saving benefits of auto­nomous cars, which are more likely than humans to drive in a safe and predictable fashion, will accrue in proportion to how many of them are on the road. In ­other words, the more human drivers they can replace, the safer we shall all be.

Human drivers will inevit­ably put up a fight – driving is, after all, an expression of freedom and something many people do for plain old fun. But such arguments will pale in the face of the life-saving benefits, which is why manual driving is destined to become illegal sooner rather than later.

The thought of a car ranch, where people might go to manually drive vehicles for pleasure, is not outlandish in that regard. After all, people used to ride horses in cities but that hasn’t been legal for ages.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.

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