Driverless car panel at SXSW with Don Civgin, Allstate, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, Chandra Bhat, UT’s director for the Center for Transportation Research, and Fast Company’s Neal Ungerleider. Photo by Susan Lahey.

Reporter with Silicon Hills News

No one knows precisely when driverless cars will become the norm in the U.S. but the speakers at a SXSW panel on the future of transportation can say they will impact society in myriad ways.

For example, the federal government collects more than $50 billion in taxes from automobile ownership, but with driverless cars providing public transport that may plummet. It will impact police stations where half the calls that come in are from traffic accidents. It will impact insurance companies who currently cover drivers, rather than manufacturers. It will impact cities planning roads, traffic, and parking. And it will impact people who don’t realize the huge role that transportation plays in how they live their lives and spend their money.

The Tuesday panel, sponsored by Allstate Insurance, featured Don Civgin, Allstate’s president of emerging businesses, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, Chandra Bhat, UT’s director for the Center for Transportation Research, and was moderated by Fast Company’s Neal Ungerleider.

Civgin said there are more than 260 million automobiles in the U.S., most of which are only used four percent of the time. They cost a total of $3 trillion a year (in payments, insurance, fuel, parking, and maintenance) and 40,000 people died last year in automobile accidents.

“When I think about transportation it has three legs,” Civgin said. “The technology, the infrastructure, and human behavior.” Civgin noted that driverless cars were “rocket science” only seven years ago, and he thinks they’re going to be the norm much sooner than people currently expect.

Driving Social Change

But people need to consider how that will impact their lives. The current system was cobbled together over generations and doesn’t fit anyone’s idea of an efficient system for moving masses of people to different points. If people are shortsighted about driverless cars, similar mistakes could happen. For example, Civgin said, people might choose to move far outside the city because in a driverless car they can use their commute time to get things done. But that ignores the impact of the automobile on the environment. Foxx expressed concern that a move to driverless cars needed to consider accessibility issues. Having a four-door sedan pull up to pick up someone in a wheelchair, for example, wouldn’t work. Also, for many people who currently use taxis or rideshares, the interaction with the driver may be their only encounter with people of a different culture or socioeconomic status.

In addition, there are the typical questions about tech: whether people want data collected on where they’re going and whether the driverless car systems are vulnerable to cyberattack. But for all the risks, Civgin pointed out, 94 percent of auto accidents are caused by human error. He talked about watching an autonomous vehicle study at the University of Michigan where researchers were collecting data in a controlled environment. In an hour, they had only logged about a mile of actual driving time on which they were collecting data. But when he spoke to someone from Tesla, they informed him they were collecting data on more than a million miles a day.

“The players who are going to push this are not playing the traditional way,” Civgin said. But while the news gets up in arms about one driverless car accident, he said, we forget that we’re beginning with 40,000 deaths annually. If driverless cars could halve that, it would be a major success.

As we move into the era of driverless cars, the panelists all agreed, it’s important to think not just in terms of the next step in transportation but in the role transportation plays in our lives, how we plot our days and activities, and the impact of that on others and the environment.

“We need to broad our discussion,” Bhat said, “into a bigger picture of society and what we want it to be.”