Like any fan of things that are totally awesome, I have been following the process of Google’s self-driving car pretty closely. Yesterday, I came across this article in Forbes about the potential future adoption of the car on a large scale, and in it author Chunka Mui makes a brilliant point: though adopting the car on a wide scale might be legally and logistically tough in the US, the driverless car would be perfect for China.
Why? Mui makes several salient points:
- China has a higher rate of accidents and traffic fatalities than the US, and Google’s cars would reduce this significantly.
- The government could save money building smaller roads, and expenses like traffic lights and some signs would no longer be necessary.
- China sees this kind of technology as being of strategic economic value and is interested in investing in it.
Those are great points, and I think there are even more reasons why the Google self-driving car would be perfect for China, and maybe some other Asian countries, too:
It could cut down on traffic congestion. Traffic congestion is a huge problem in many Chinese cities, and it’s just as much of an issue in parts of Southeast Asia, too. (We saw some gnarly traffic jams in Jakarta last year). Having self-driving cars wouldn’t eliminate traffic jams totally, but it could cut down on them significantly if computers were in control of every car, as they would be able to route themselves efficiently to avoid congestion whenever possible. Driverless cars could also cut down on some of the road rage that comes along with traffic jams, as drivers would be free to tune out and do some work on their laptops or even maybe watch TV while the cars sorted the traffic issues out themselves.
Driver education would no longer be a problem. Part of the reason China has so many traffic fatalities is that many drivers are relatively inexperienced, and drivers education in China can be quite poor. In part because there are so many people who want to learn to drive, many drivers’ ed courses are short, and the practical parts of the course often only include driving at slow speeds on closed courses; nothing like the driving people encounter when they take their cars onto city streets. Having self-driving cars would fix this problem by eliminating the need for drivers’ ed in the first place.
Self-driving cabs? This is admittedly taking things beyond what Google has yet accomplished, but it seems like it would even be possible to deploy self-driving cabs. Potential passengers could hail cabs using a smartphone app that would signal to the closest available cab to come pick them up, and then use NFC or some other location technology to confirm that the smartphone user is the person who gets into the cab. This would eliminate any issues of driver bias or picking and choosing their fares, and it would also eliminate passenger squabbles during rush hour about who hailed the cab first. To increase efficiency, perhaps cabs could even scan passenger destinations and (for a reduced fee) pick up multiple passegers who are all headed to the same general area.
There are, of course, some reasons why this wouldn’t work. The biggest one is that it would be massively expensive, and while China’s government has been quite willing to spend huge amounts of money on high-tech infrastructure projects like its high speed rail system, the massive corruption and deadly accident that have come out of that project so far indicate that at the very least, China would have to be very careful to ensure no corners were cut in the implementation of a driverless car system nationwide.
Even so, though, I think it’s an excellent idea, and the Chinese government should be looking very carefully at Google’s project. Perhaps in a few years’ time when the technology is a little cheaper and a little bit more mature, the government could pick a very small city as a test area and implement driverless cars to see if the project could ever work on a larger scale.