Self-driving car technology could end up in robots

But many of the benefits offered by self-driving cars won't appear for decades, says research from McKinsey

The development of self-driving cars could spur advancements in robotics and cause other ripple effects, potentially benefitting society in a variety of ways.

Autonomous cars as well as robots rely on artificial intelligence, image recognition, GPS and processors, among other technologies, notes a report from consulting firm McKinsey. Some of the hardware used in self-driving cars could find its way into robots, lowering production costs and the price for consumers.

Self-driving cars could also help people grow accustomed to other machines, like robots, that can complete tasks without the need for human intervention.

Commonly used parts could allow auto mechanics to fix robots as well, said the report, released Thursday. Infrastructure like machine-to-machine communication networks could also be shared.

Many tech companies and car makers -- including Google, Intel, Sony, Honda and Toyota -- are already developing robots, the report noted. Google, for example, has invested extensively in self-driving vehicles and recently debuted an autonomous car. Last month Boston Dynamics, a robotics company Google bought in 2013, showed its latest robot, a four-legged machine that can climb stairs and stay upright when kicked.

Car companies will define their plans for self-driving vehicles in the next two to three years. Over the next two decades, trucks will become the first vehicles that drive autonomously on public roads, requiring changes in the insurance industry. Insurers will end up covering manufacturers for technical failures, McKinsey said.

Autonomous passenger cars, however, won't appear in critical mass on public roads until after 2040, the report forecast. So the full range of benefits of self-driving cars won't occur for most people until after that time. For example, by 2050, people will have an extra 50 minutes in their day. That's the amount of time people spend driving each day, the McKinsey report noted. Instead, that in-car time could be used for work, relaxing or entertainment.

Also, fewer parking spaces will be necessary since autonomous vehicles can park closer together than humans do, the report said. That could free up 5.7 billion [b] square meters of parking space in the U.S. by 2050.

The U.S. health care system could see benefits from self-driving vehicles if they live up to the hype surrounding their safety abilities. Car accidents ranked second in accidental causes of death in 2013, but with more autonomous vehicles on the road auto fatalities will drop to ninth place in 2050, McKinsey said. With fewer car crashes, the U.S. economy could save between $180 billion and $190 billion each year.

The report didn't delve into the security and privacy issues surrounding computerized and autonomous vehicles. Concerns have been raised, for instance, around the ability to hack a car's computer network.

People are also worried that they won't be able to override the control systems of self-driving cars. Last year, Google showed off an autonomous car that lacked brakes and a steering wheel. However, California law now requires self-driving cars to have features that allow people to take control if something goes wrong. Google later said it would modify the prototype and add a steering wheel and brakes.

Fred O'Connor writes about IT careers and health IT for The IDG News Service. Follow Fred on Twitter at @fredjoconnor. Fred's e-mail address is fred_o'connor@idg.com

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