What would surprise you most about your morning commute if you woke up to find yourself beamed 80 years into the future? Self-driving cars would be a good guess—but no. Autonomous transport will be ubiquitous by the 2040s, if not sooner. Shared fleets of driverless, personal transit will be unremarkable by 2096. The future shock in 80 years will be the end of everything we hate most about car society today: parking, traffic jams, and motor death itself. 

A leading killer of Americans under the age of 35—vehicle crashes—will have become less common in 2096 than death by a lightning strike.

The long fight by Consumer Reports and others against unsafe cars has been invaluable, but only the rise of truly autonomous cars will finally address the most deadly and enduring design flaw in our vehicles: the human behind the wheel. And that shift, seemingly radical today but utterly commonsense tomorrow, can transform for the better our cities, our economy, our environment, and our way of life.

If we play our cards right.

It’s easy to forget that, 80 years ago, cars lacked even the most basic safety measures. It took many decades before cars had seat belts, laminated safety glass, airbags, crumple zones, and child safety seats that actually work.

While safety technology has made many crashes more survivable and prevented some others, it can’t truly overcome bad driving. And make no mistake: Bad driving is the primary cause of fatal car crashes, most of which are the result of driving too drunk, too fast, or too distracted.

The phrase “car crash” is a pointed choice here. The everyday term “car accident” is a lie we tell ourselves as almost all crashes result from avoidable acts of negligence, recklessness, foolishness, or law breaking. In the 1920s, these were rightly called “motor killings.” Today’s euphemism of “accidents” allows us to pretend that the toll of bad driving is the unavoidable cost of modern mobility. And so we avert our gaze from the carnage on U.S. roads: an estimated 38,300 deaths and 4.4 million serious injuries in 2015 alone.

That works out to an average of 105 deaths and more than 12,000 injuries a day on U.S. roads and streets—one motor death every 14 minutes, and one injury serious enough to require medical attention every 7 seconds.

Put another way, one year of dead and injured on the road represents a casualty count greater than the combined American dead and wounded from every war we’ve ever fought. Driving is our most dangerous battlefield.

The encouraging news is that recent trends in auto safety aren’t just about shielding us during crashes—which is critical and saves lives—but about endeavoring to prevent disaster in the first place. This evolution began with antilock brakes and electronic stability control in the ’80s and ’90s, and continues today with collision-avoidance systems that can commandeer the brakes when sensors perceive a crash is imminent.

The way forward is clear: We need a concerted effort to add more layers of carefully tested and validated autonomy to cars, ultimately pushing human drivers out of the loop.

Cruise-control tech already in most cars—a primitive form of autonomy—could be repurposed to prevent drivers from exceeding posted speed limits. (Not to mention that speed limits are too high to begin with. We allow cars to do 40 mph where pedestrians are present, knowing this may kill almost half the people struck at this speed. At 20 mph, pedestrian fatalities fall to 7 percent.)

Blood alcohol touch sensors currently in the prototype stage could end drunken driving for good by shutting off the car and automatically summoning a ride-share.

And smartphones—a leading factor in distracted driving—can be forced by an even smarter car into voice-command-only status. Countless lives and many millions in medical and insurance costs could be saved with these simple advances.

Autonomous cars suffered a setback in May, when a driver died while operating Tesla Motors’ “beta” feature, Autopilot. The name suggests that the car can drive itself, when in fact it requires human drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel and pay constant attention. The driver, who apparently failed to do so, was killed. On the other hand, I personally witnessed the Google Self-Driving Car avoid striking a jaywalker most human drivers would have hit. The technology has the potential to save many lives now being lost to human error. It’s up to the public and private sectors to work together to get there quickly but also safely.


The past installements in this special series include "A Safer Food Future, Now," by Eric Schlosser, and "A New Vision of True Health," by Leana S. Wen, M.D.
 

Here’s what 2096 could look like if the promise is nurtured into reality, along with a few other key advances that will transform transportation.

Cities Will Be Remade
Because driverless cars can move bumper to bumper safely in much skinnier lanes with no traffic jams, new urban cores can devote 40 to 60 percent of space previously used for street and parking infrastructure to public and open space. And because these will be shared electric fleets rather than individually owned gas burners, air quality will improve while fossil-fuel dependence wanes.

Mass Transit Will Be Transformed
Bus-sized robot coaches can also platoon bumper to bumper—forming de facto trains—then peel off for various stops to suit passengers. Country, suburb, and city can be seamlessly linked. Driving alone in a car for a long distance will be viewed as a shockingly wasteful historical absurdity.

People Will Become Healthier
Repurposed streets and shared fleets will de-emphasize car culture, and encourage walking and biking for short trips. This could result in a triumph over obesity and heart disease as Americans embrace exercise as a natural part of everyday life.

The Movement of Goods Will Be Revolutionized
Advanced 3D printing will make a great deal of shipping and global trade obsolete as manufacturing will become a local activity. Consumers will buy a product design online, then it will be “printed” at the neighborhood 3D shop for pickup. Meanwhile, giant solar airships and airliner-sized drones will move other cargo across the globe.

Going to Work May Become a Perk
Augmented reality, digital commuting, and virtual meetings will make daily commuting an option, not a requirement. But face-to-face brainstorming, camaraderie with peers, and the need for human connection will keep many of us commuting. And why not? In a world with personal rapid transit, walkable and bikeable streets, and no traffic jams, there’ll be nothing to dread about rush hour.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the October 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.