Driver error, perhaps not surprisingly, is the main cause of auto accidents, according to federal safety agencies. How many times have you been caught near drivers who didn’t seem to be paying attention? Or had a near-collision? Driving often feels like it would be so much better without other drivers.
A driverless future may be on the way. Google’s driverless car has driven more than 400,000 miles on California roads. Auto manufacturers including General Motors, Nissan, Audi, BMW, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo are conducting their own research on autonomous cars. Though no driverless cars will be ready for sale until 2020 (Google’s prospective car launch), computer-run safety features are becoming common in high-end vehicles.
These initial steps towards driverless cars include adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning systems, collision avoidance automatic braking, and automatic parallel parking. A number of cars are equipped with a system to automatically take you off cruise control in hazardous conditions.
Though magical in many ways, the idea of a driverless car also sparks uneasiness. Are these vehicles actually safe? After all, GPS systems routinely recommend driving into lakes. Perhaps a good glimpse into the future is the Google car’s accident record. The car experienced two accidents, both the fault of humans. In one, another driver rear-ended the car. In the other, the human co-pilot had turned off the computer and was driving the car manually when an accident occurred.
A recent study by the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington, D.C., think tank, predicted that autonomous cars or AVs would be transforming transportation within a decade. The study found that if only 10% of cars on the road were self-driving, the U.S. would experience 1,000 fewer deaths a year and see an economic savings of $38 billion. If 90% of cars were self-driving, the Eno study estimates 21,700 fewer deaths and $447 billion in savings.
The ongoing debate of humans versus computers will continue. In the meantime, California, Florida, and Nevada have already passed laws regulating the licensing and operation of driverless cars. California, the home of Google, is mandating completion of licensing requirements by 2015.
Drivers may not be ready to give up their hold on the steering wheel, and they may be right. The safety of driverless cars remains to be proven.