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Will Your Next Car Drive Itself?

Driverless electric prototypes are racking up thousands of highway miles. They'll soon be ready to drive you around.

posted by Gary Drevitch, July 20, 2012 More by this author

eric schmidt, larry page and sergey brin in a self-driving car on january 20, 20

Gary Drevitch was senior Web editor for Next Avenue's Caregiving and Health & Well-Being channels.


eric schmidt, larry page and sergey brin in a self-driving car on january 20, 20
Google CEP Eric Schmidt and co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in a self-driving car on January 20, 2011
Google.com
Turns out, we're not all going to own a flying car in our lifetimes.

The Jetsons said that's what the future held in store for us, and it seemed pretty appealing. But think about it: Do you really want the same drivers you see on the road now to suddenly have the ability to tailgate or cut people off in midair, hurtling disabled hovercars like giant grenades onto houses and pedestrians below?

The good news is, you might get something even cooler — and sooner than you imagine: a gas-saving, traffic-avoiding auto that drives itself.

Google, in one of the many side projects a technology company worth several billion dollars can afford to tinker with, has already tested self-driving automobiles on California and Nevada highways, covering hundreds of thousands of miles. BMW, Toyota and Mercedes, among others, are working on similar technology. Cadillac claims it will have its own model ready to go by 2015.

(MORE: New Auto Technology Helps Drivers With Limitations)

According to Wired magazine and other recent reports, the new driverless vehicles employ advanced technology, including radar, to monitor road conditions, similar to the accident-prevention systems now in some high-end cars.

They're also equipped with windshield-mounted cameras to ensure the car stays in its lane; rooftop lasers that provide the car with a 360-degree view at all times; infrared cameras for night vision; additional cameras to build a real-time 3-D image of road conditions; wheel-mounted sensors to monitor and adjust speed; and, of course, advanced GPS so it can follow the most efficient route possible.

The driverless car can gather information from its transmitters 10 times per second. In most current prototypes, a human driver can manually override the system and take the steering wheel, but generally the cars require no human intervention at all.

Writing in Wired, Tom Vanderbilt describes a recent test ride in a driverless Toyota:

The Prius begins to seem like the Platonic ideal of a driver, against which all others fall short. It can think faster than any mortal driver. It can attend to more information, react more quickly to emergencies, and keep track of more complicated routes. It never panics. It never gets angry. It never even blinks. In short, it is better than human in just about every way....

I find myself imagining how much more smoothly the system would function if every car were like this one. Even at its most packed, only about 5 percent of a highway’s surface is covered by automobiles; if cars were hyperalert and algorithmically optimized, you could presumably squeeze many more of them onto the pavement. And then there’s the safety benefit. Traffic is the most dangerous thing that most of us ever encounter. From 2001 to 2009, American roads claimed 369,629 lives. And the culprit was not poorly lighted thoroughfares or faulty gas pedals but us — one landmark study cited “human errors” as the “definite or probable causes” of 93 percent of crashes.

Faced with the alternatives — that guy who cut us off without signaling, the mom nursing an Ambien hangover who’s drifting into the right lane, the Bluetooth jockey doing 90 mph — I welcome our new robotic Prius-driving overlords.

When self-driving technology becomes commercially available, Steven Kopits writes in Foreign Policy, “it will liberate the car from its driver, enabling a vehicle to serve more users.”
 
Today, the average car in the U.S. is used just an hour a day, Kopits points out, typically to get someone to and from work. “But if the car could drive itself,” he proposes, with destinations programmed into its advanced GPS, “it could return home to take the children to school, members of the family shopping and seniors to visit friends or keep appointments.”

Kopits estimates that the market for self-driving technology could reach $25 billion per year and account for 15 to 20 percent of new-vehicle sales in the U.S. by 2025. The first driverless vehicles to reach market are expected to be well out of the price range of most families, but as the technology improves and more cars are produced, the cost will drop. Analysts expect municipalities and corporations to be among the first buyers. If the public can be persuaded to use self-driving electric cars — virtually all prototypes are electric — as driverless taxis or as a shared resource (like today’s Zipcars), the autos could become a new form of cost-effective public transportation. And executives could embrace the time-saving benefits of a vehicle that can be programmed to park itself and then summoned remotely to return when needed.

(MORE: Taking Away an Older Driver's Keys)

Potential second-generation customers include parents with multiple carpool responsibilities and senior citizens no longer able to drive but reliant on short-range transportation for errands and appointments. Eventually, driverless cars could be a boon for overtaxed family caregivers by relieving the burden of chauffeuring a loved one.

Another bonus is that self-driving cars equipped with superior detection systems would render traffic jams virtually extinct. “Imagine a world in which you could predict exactly how long it would take to drive in your car from one point to another," Clifford Winston of the Brookings Institution writes in The Wall Street Journal. "No worries about rush hour, vacation congestion, bad drivers, speed traps and accidents. You could also text while you drive with no safety implications.”

Indeed, analysts say traffic flow would improve as more driverless cars hit the road. They can travel closer to vehicles more safely than human drivers can, they can maintain steady speed better, and they never slow down to rubberneck.

“Once the idea of sending the car to park itself takes hold, it is almost irresistible," Kopits writes. "Self-driving cars would be the biggest time-saving breakthrough since the washing machine.”

“The technology will continue to develop and, bit by bit, be deployed commercially," he adds. "For a country beset by economic stress and uncertainty, self-driving technology offers a vision of a better tomorrow, a more optimistic world. We should embrace it.”