How about a self-driving car in your future?

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Some of you are probably aware that Google has been testing a self-driving car on California streets since last year. (Check out a few videos if you’re interested.)  They believe they have progressed far enough in their tests that they have gone to the Nevada legislature to legally allow their cars on Nevada roads… and that they earn an exemption from the law prohibiting texting while driving.

There’s nothing new about the concept of the self-driven car; science fiction has been toying with them for decades, of course.  But with the latest in sensor systems being applied to digital roadmaps and image recognition technology, cars are learning to recognize roads and hazards and direct themselves.  As a 2010 NY Times article put it: “Robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated.”

I’m not sure whether the Google car is really ready for prime time, but I do think it’s a step in the right direction.

It’s no secret that automobiles are responsible for more deaths in the United States than any other single influence, including heart attack, cancer and manslaughter, intentional and unintentional.  A major reason is the sheer amount of input while driving a car in our ever-congested cities and highways, something most of us can handle when the level is low, and we are at our best… but that can easily overwhelm us if the input is high, or we are not at our best.  And by “at our best,” I mean not under the influence, not physically ill, not driving irresponsibly, and not distracted by other things.

Distraction is a major issue.  There are so many things that can drag our attention away from our driving, from fiddling with the radio, to eating, phone-calling, doing our makeup, disciplining the kids in the back seat, checking the map for your destination, rubber-necking that accident across the street, or checking out the cute jogger on the sidewalk.  Presently, laws are being written and rewritten to minimize the number of distracting things you can do while driving.

But if you think about it, it makes even more sense to find a way to eliminate the single most dangerous part of those tasks—driving—from everything else you do in a car.  In fact, it’s a wonder that people aren’t demanding self-driving cars, so they can get where they need to go and continue to do all the things they want to do en route.

I am one of those people who believe that, eventually, car driving will be handed over to the vehicles themselves for more than 99% of driving duties.  Self-driving cars will be better able to handle heavy traffic and rush-hour duties, probably organizing themselves into strings of “auto-trains” that will travel mere inches apart, communicate with each other to coordinate speed and lane-changes, and select the best routes based on live traffic data.  As sensors improve, they will be able to drive on any road, even dirt, and be able to negotiate driveways and parking lots with ease.  We may eventually see vehicles drop you off at your destination, then go and park themselves, and later return to the curb when you call for them (the valets are gonna hate that).

Most importantly, we will see far fewer accidents and fatalities, and fewer people stressed about car travel, because they can concentrate on anything and everything except the stress of driving the car.

Needless to say, such a sea-change from manually operating a motor vehicle to allowing it to drive itself will take time.  Those who feel they can drive their own cars, or who distrust automation to drive as well or as safely as they can, will resist the idea of self-driven cars, even when presented with clear evidence that their perception of their own driving prowess isn’t what they think it is.

Fortunately, they are not the only people on the roads: We may see those who cannot drive themselves, like the elderly or disabled, take up the initial use of such vehicles, providing a public demonstration of how well the cars work; we may see cars that drive teens and younger about, completely on automatic, freeing parents from chauffeuring duties (and incidentally saving more of our teens, who are most at risk for accidents due to driving inexperience); and others who prefer being chauffeured around, just because, may buy into self-driven cars to enjoy the benefits of automation.

As these groups and others try out self-driven cars and eventually prove their worth, we may eventually see the public, and the government, deciding that using a manually-driven car is too dangerous for public areas, when there are workable and safer alternatives available; and laws could eventually follow, joining the seatbelt laws and drunk-driving statutes as the natural next step for driver and public safety.  Some may feel they are being forced to accept a lack of control over their driving, and there will surely be outrage every time a self-driven car fails (which they will, we know); but the expected drop in accidents and fatalities will likely serve to quiet the naysayers, or to harden others against their complaints.  And as more self-driven cars enter the roads, adding a greater measure of predictability (another major hazard to other drivers) to traffic patterns, safety levels should increase even more.

Google’s car is the next step in ushering in this next logical step of driving, bringing safety back to our roads, and allowing people to continue the activities of their lives, even as they travel from place to place.  We may not have reached that point yet… but we’re getting there.

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