Driver-less Cars Still in the Distance
It sounds like a scene from a science fiction movie. A car drives down the road without human input, safely navigating traffic and avoiding crashes. In fact, “autonomous” vehicles are now a reality, as evidenced by the Google car and similar prototypes being tested by vehicle manufacturers and automotive technology companies.
Self-driving cars are able to navigate the road thanks to stored information, satellite GPS signals, multiple “computer vision” sensors, powerful computers and special actuators that are used to control acceleration, steering and braking. Many autonomous vehicle technologies are already used in the advanced driver assistance systems offered on select late-model vehicles. Some common systems include adaptive cruise control, automated emergency braking, lane deviation warning and correction, blind spot monitoring and assisted parallel parking.
Why develop autonomous vehicles? In a word, safety. In 2010 there were roughly 6 million vehicle crashes in the U.S. that resulted in 32,788 deaths, more than 2 million injuries and a quarter million hospitalizations. Vehicle crashes were the leading cause of death for Americans age 4 to 34 and, in addition to human suffering, the cost of U.S. vehicle collisions is estimated at $450 billion annually.
Analysis of the 2010 data also revealed that 93 percent of collisions could be attributed to human error. When properly designed, an autonomous vehicle can manage the hazards of driving better than most people because it can react faster and doesn’t get distracted or tired, misjudge traffic conditions, talk or text on a cell phone or suffer road rage.
Safety experts estimate that the widespread use of autonomous vehicles could eliminate 80 to 90 percent of all collisions and significantly reduce the severity of those that do occur. Autonomous vehicles could also help reduce congestion, increase traffic flow, improve fuel efficiency and free up personal time for other tasks while in the car. Eventually, autonomous vehicle sharing could replace car ownership for some portion of the motoring public.
Estimates vary on when driver-less cars will become available for the average motorist. Technology companies think they are only a few years away. Automakers, regulatory groups and legal experts say it may be 10 to 20 years before fully autonomous cars are ready to safely enter traffic. In either case, it remains a matter of when, not if, cars that can drive themselves will appear in our future.