The road to the future may not require a driver

The transportation marvels predicted in science fiction are becoming reality. For example, there’s a workable flying car – shown at auto shows last year – in which George Jetson could feel very comfortable. And self-driving cars could be in showrooms as early as 2020, according to industry-watchers.

Google has been testing self-driving technology for a few years. And Audi, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Cadillac, Toyota and Volvo are developing it, too.

Self-driving machines make sense from several points of view. For example, Ford’s Executive Chairman William Clay Ford, Jr., recently pointed out that the world’s projected population of nine billion people in four billion cars would result in “global gridlock” without technological intervention.

Gridlock notwithstanding, increased vehicle volume on public roads will create a serious safety threat, especially if drivers are unable to react quickly to changing situations or are impaired by alcohol or drugs, fatigue or other factors that make them inattentive (texting, talking on the phone, eating, etc.). Driverless cars could literally save lives. They also might preserve some individual freedom for older drivers who would be able to trust technology instead of their aging reflexes. Last year more than 34,000 people were killed on American roads. Human error is the cause of 90 percent of auto accidents.

Driverless cars could do more than simply making the roads safer. Imagine what a wonderful transportation solution they could be for sight-challenged people. Driverless vehicle technology could be a dramatic, lifesaving game-changer.

Would driverless cars indeed mean that humans wouldn’t have to be in charge of their cars except for setting the destination? Is it realistic to believe that built-in computers, by tracking nearby objects and using the information to keep their cars chugging – or whizzing – along on their predetermined paths, could be trusted completely? Or would drivers need to stay “on duty” as a fail-safe? And, if there were an accident, where would the liability be: the “driver/owner,” or the manufacturer? These are serious questions that need to be addressed before driverless cars come to market.

Just in the past several days the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on the future of driverless technology. While acknowledging that the emerging technology of driverless cars is “breathtaking” the possibility that hackers could interfere with driverless cars – with tragic results – is a potential concern, according to the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, David Strickland.

Automobile manufacturers have been edging up on driverless cars for several years, beginning with the introduction of anti-lock braking systems, which are now standard new-car equipment. But with every new model year there are one or more innovations that bring us closer to eliminating the need for drivers controlling all vehicle functions. For example, cars already have stability control that helps prevent rollover accidents, and adaptive cruise control that automatically accelerates and brakes to maintain the correct distance between a car and the one ahead. Some cars can signal if they sense the drivers are beginning to snooze at the wheel. Many cars already have lane departure warning and parking assist functions that can get a car into a tighter space than many drivers can. Next year, some models are expected to have “traffic jam assist,” which will turn over navigation to the car in stop-and-go traffic – just by pushing a button. So, really, going driverless is just an incremental improvement.

As most of us know, technology doesn’t come cheaply, and the technology already on offer is often optional and comes at an additional price. Right now, Google’s prototype driverless technology is reported to cost about $75,000. However, a 19-year-old from Romania won this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair by developing technology that performs the same functions for about $4,000. A J.D. Power and Associates survey found that 37 percent of drivers like the idea of driverless cars, but their interest dropped to 20 percent if it added $3,000 to the cost of the car.

Stay tuned.


About timwjackson

Working every day for a better Colorado.
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