New rules of the road for robot cars coming out of Washington this week could lead to the eventual extinction of one of the defining archetypes of the past century: the human driver.
While banning people from driving may seem like something from a Kurt Vonnegut short story, it's the logical endgame of a technology that could dramatically reduce - or even eliminate - the 1.25 million road deaths a year globally. Human error is the cause of 94 percent of roadway fatalities, US safety regulators say, and robot drivers never get drunk, sleepy or distracted.
Autonomous cars already have "superhuman intelligence" that allows them to see around corners and avoid crashes, said Danny Shapiro, senior director of automotive at Nvidia Corp., a maker of high-speed processors for self-driving cars.
"Long term, these vehicles will drive better than any human possibly can," Shapiro said. "We're not there yet, but we will get there sooner than we believe."
Regulators are accelerating the shift with new rules that will provide a path for going fully driverless by removing the requirement that a human serve as a backup. Earlier this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recognized Google's self-driving software as the "driver" in its fully autonomous test vehicles, eliminating the need for a person to be present.
This week, technology industry veterans proposed a ban on human drivers on a 150-mile (241-kilometer) stretch of Interstate 5 from Seattle to Vancouver. Within five years, human driving could be outlawed in congested city centers like London, on college campuses and at airports, said Kristin Schondorf, executive director of automotive transportation at consultant EY.
The first driver-free zones will be well-defined and digitally mapped, giving autonomous cars long-range vision and a 360-degree view of their surroundings, Schondorf said. The I-5 proposal would start with self-driving vehicles using car-pool lanes and expand over a decade to robot rides taking over the road during peak driving times.
"In city centers, you don't even want non-automated vehicles; they would just ruin the whole point of why you have a smart city," said Schondorf, a former engineer at Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. "It makes it a dumb city."
John Krafcik, head of Google's self-driving car project, said in an August interview with Bloomberg Businessweek that the tech giant is developing cars without steering wheels and gas or brake pedals because "we need to take the human out of the loop."
Ford Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields echoed that sentiment last month when he said the 113-year-old automaker would begin selling robot taxis with no steering wheel or pedals in 2021.
"Problems with drivers not paying attention or getting sleepy or getting drunk are really ripe for autonomous to do a better job than humans," said Ron Medford, director of safety at Google's self-driving car program and former deputy administrator of the NHTSA.
With mobile devices an added distraction, US highway fatalities rose 8 percent last year, the biggest increase in 50 years. Some 38,300 people were killed on the road in 2015 and 4.4 million were seriously injured, according to the National Safety Council. Globally, 1.25 million people die in car crashes annually, according to the World Health Organization.
"Behind the wheel, we are only human and we are expected to screw up," said Raj Rajkumar, co-director of the General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab in Pittsburgh. "There will come a point in time where we should not be allowed to drive."
Not so fast, say some safety advocates, who point to the grisly death of a Tesla Motors driver while he had his car on autopilot in May.
"There's tremendous skepticism still today about driverless cars," said Joan Claybrook, an auto-safety watchdog and former administrator of the NHTSA. "These are just computers, and computers break down."
Self-driving cars still struggle to operate in snow and fog. Plus, they can't yet comprehend social aspects of everyday driving, such as head nods and hand gestures at four-way stops.
"The capabilities of these systems are much less than people may think," said Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports magazine. "The most difficult thing for a self-driving vehicle to do is to deal with humans, because humans tend to be unpredictable."
That's exactly why error-prone humans eventually must exit the highway, autonomous advocates say.
But persuading the public to relinquish the road won't be easy. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. consumers say they won't buy a robot car because they believe they're dangerous, according to a July survey of 2,500 consumers by Altman Vilandrie & Co., a Boston-based consultant. More than half of those surveyed would refuse to ride in a self-driving car.
That opposition may soften as more drivers are saved by semi-autonomous features, such as automatic braking and technology that steers a car back into its lane when it crosses the line.
To speed the transition, governments may give drivers financial incentives to replace their cars with autonomous vehicles, similar to the Cash for Clunkers program offered in 2009 to get gas guzzlers off the road, Google's Medford said. Insurance companies also could nudge people out of the driver's seat by charging a higher premium to operate a car manually, Schondorf said.
But it remains a tall task with 275 million human-driven autos on the road in the US and 2 billion in operation worldwide. Ultimately, it's the responsibility of the robots to show that they're better drivers.
"Autonomous vehicles have to prove their mettle," said Rajkumar of Carnegie Mellon. "And that's going to take time."
© 2016 Bloomberg L.P.