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Driverless cars pose challenges, but they're coming

Wednesday - 4/9/2014, 7:03am  ET

WASHINGTON -- If you dream of owning a car that drives itself, Nissan is promising to sell them by 2020. And part of the region is taking steps to plan for their arrival on the roads.

Owners of driverless cars would need to apply for an addition to their driver's license, and get special license plates for their vehicles, under a rulemaking proposal from the D.C. DMV.

Patrick Tucker, a futurist and author of "The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move?," tells WTOP that the rule-changing process should have started a decade ago.

"They should have been doing it after the first DARPA Grand Challenge, which proved that this was a feasible future for vehicles -- for transportation."

Tucker says a future full of autonomous cars would make roads safer and less congested.

"I think that we have a ton to be excited about. Probably the most important thing is a lot less traffic, particularly around here. What self-driving cars do when you combine a whole bunch of them together is, they reduce the need for every single driver to have their own vehicle, because it allows for carsharing on a scale that we can't even approach right now. If you have a self-driving car you can, for instance, rent it out during the day while you're at work. It can go to find people who need it. You can check their reputation as a renter online, and then you can vend them your car for a certain period of time using a punch code."

Tucker says that economists have predicted that "in a full self-driving car ecosystem, we would need about a tenth as many cars as we do today, and that would really cut down on traffic a tremendous amount."

Tucker says the thought of using driverless cars scares him less than having to share the road with many of today's drivers, who constantly teeter on the edge of road rage.

"Overall, the system of computerized navigation spread across a variety of different nodes, each able to communicate with every other node perfectly, immediately and electronically -- that's going to become far safer than machines driven by angry primates that don't communicate with one another, except through rude hand gestures and horn honking," he says.

But Tucker says there are a few things to wory about.

"We aren't economically ready for the potential disruption that a self-driving car ecosystem could create. It's going to be far more efficient. It's going to result in far fewer cars, and we have an economic model where people make money off of inefficiency and also where people produce cars. We'd like to produce cars at a certain volume, and this creates a boosted GDP. So we have to have a conversation about this right now. We're looking at a major economic disruptive force in autonomous vehicles within the civilian setting and that's what scares me, is that we're not willing to have that conversation yet."

Tucker says he thinks self-driving cars will eventually become a reality for everyday commuters.

"Once it's obvious that these systems, used correctly, built correctly, designed correctly, are far safer than anything we have right now, we're going to transition towards them very quickly, and that could have a lot of bad economic impacts for people that are attached to the way the system works right now."

Hints of the future to come are already in cars on the road today -- maybe even in your car.

"These components are already merging into really late-model vehicles that you see today, just piecemeal. So, you're going to see more and more autonomous-type capabilities without full autonomy in cars that you can buy, yet at the same time we're still expected to drive."

Driverless car proposal

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