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Autonomous Prime

February 20, 2012

“Maybe the problem is that driving distracts us from our digital lives.” – From “Let the Robots Drive” an article in this month’s Wired Magazine

Look ma! No hands!

Google has given us a glimpse of the future of automobile transportation and we are increasingly not a part of that vision. If this sounds unrealistic, consider that Google has already developed a driver-less vehicle (or autonomous car) capable of traveling safely at highway speeds and in traffic. Just a few years ago, this technology was in its infancy. Now, the U.S. state of Nevada has legalized autonomous vehicles and two other states are considering laws of their own.

This driver-less future frightens some. These folks worry about the increasing role technology plays in our lives. They wonder how connected is too connected. They question the safety of the technology and ask: what if the software fails? They may even bristle at what they perceive as a loss of some abstract freedom or control that cars can provide.

These are all concerns of serious merit, but they are outweighed by one significant factor: human driving error. Let me throw some statistics at you. In 2009, 33,808 Americans died in car crashes. Sixteen percent (or 4,898) of all car crashes were due to driver distraction, injuring an estimated 448,000 people. What’s more, a 2008 survey found that 82 percent of respondents rated driving distraction as a serious problem. Even more frightening, some 56 percent of respondents to one survey said that they did not change their driving habits despite having been involved in a car crash!

This is probably you.

Taken together, these statistics paint a picture of a serious national driving problem. If there were a solution to the problem of human driving error, wouldn’t you take it? Think back to the quote at the beginning of this post; we have more distractions than ever before, suggesting that this is a problem that will only get worse before it gets better. And let’s be blunt: humans are lousy drivers. An informal study of driving habits (conducted right now, from my seat in the cafe where I write this) suggests that close to one hundred percent of passing drivers control their vehicles with either one or no hands visible on the steering wheel.

Autonomous cars solve this problem. They can potentially take thousands, if not millions, of human drivers off the road. If even twenty-five percent of cars go autonomous, that is twenty-five percent fewer bad drivers and twenty-five percent less chance of human error on the road. This could lead to big decreases in annual road fatalities.

There are still a lot of problems that must be solved before autonomous cars can go on the road. Even the best cars are still not street-ready, and they won’t be for at least another five years. Google wants its cars to pass one million street miles without incident before they become available to the public. There are the legal questions as well. How will these cars be insured? What role will the human driver play? Will the human driver be responsible for an accident?

Despite these surmountable challenges, the positives make it difficult not to endorse autonomous cars. Just a few minutes spent in rush hour traffic should be enough to convince even the most dogged Luddite of the value of a self-driving car. Autonomous cars would no doubt require the driver to concentrate on the road but they would take much of the stress out of our daily commutes, provide mobility to the disabled, and reduce the number of cars on the road by making it easier for families to share a single vehicle. Not only this, but the technology would also permit computer systems to more effectively manage traffic, reducing the kind of gridlock most of us are used to.

One frequent criticism of modern technology is that it often takes away the kind of personal control we’ve become accustomed to. In America, we still possess this vision of the freedom of the open road; infinite highways that allow us unlimited mobility. However, times have changed. Rising fuel prices make long-distance travel economically unfeasible for many of us. Most Americans use their cars, not for any kind of “freedom”, but for the daily commute and the necessary local trips to the bank and supermarket. Autonomous cars ask us to make the following choice: do we give up a task that increasingly fewer of us actually enjoy (driving) for a far safer transportation experience?

These days are over, cowboy.

Next time you are nearly hit by a driver who can’t merge or are rear-ended by a driver on her phone, think how much better it would be if you or the other driver (or both) were replaced by a computer. Scary? Maybe a little. But far less scary then the reality out there on the road.

Below: Google employee and former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun explains autonomous car technology.

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