You’ve probably seen commercials for luxury vehicles that use motion sensors to correct operator error, either by moving sideways or by stopping short. Similarly, cars with adaptive cruise control will automatically adjust your speed, to maintain a safe distance from the car in front of you. Combine these 21st century developments with GPS technology, and you have the ingredients for a vehicle that can get you from point A to point B with nothing more than a little direction.
Are you ready for the self-driving car? Are we ready for the autonomous vehicle?
Originally one of Google X Lab’s secret projects, the team has been seen driving around a fleet of robo-Toyota Prius’ that have logged over 200,000 road miles in various settings including high traffic highways and windy mountain roads. The projects’ goals are to limit the number of accidents, reduce road congestion through carpooling and efficient road utilization, and to maximize fuel consumption. German auto manufacturer’s BMW, Audi, and VW are among the other companies getting in on the autonomous car action.
An expensive laser on top of the car creates a a detailed 3D image of it’s 360 degree surrounds. There is a rear view mirror that detects traffic lights, as well as four high-tech corner-positioned sensors. This technology enables the car to read the speeds and directional movements of various surrounding objects. The vehicle also features an on-board computer equipped with GPS maps of the current landscape, as well as data on what the current speed limits are.
If the technology can be perfected and adopted by the masses, it could create several hours of free time during the busy days of citizens everywhere. Imagine having your vehicle commute you to school or work while you put the finishing touches on an important project. Seats could be adjusted for more interaction and family time could be thoroughly enjoyed on road trips.
While this wouldn’t bode well for people that make a living as a taxi or truck driver, we could protect the millions of citizens directly or indirectly affected by DUI’s every year.
This technology does bring up some tough questions, though. Obviously we can’t get everyone into a self-driving car at once. These cars aren’t (yet) equipped with mind reading technology, so how will they react to an angry, drunk, or otherwise unpredictable driver? Will computers be able to react to the challenges of a construction zone? What effect will this have on the auto insurance industry?
How will they react to an emergency situation such as falling cargo from a nearby truck? In what direction will the self-steering car choose to swerve? Who’s life will it place at risk?
In a world run by lawyers, who would be at fault in an unfortunate situation where deaths occur? What if the GPS system miscalculated a location by a foot or two? Who would be at fault in an accident where a computer or laser system malfunctions, or nearby a human driver claims he was doing nothing illegal?
Are we ready to make the switch? Beginning this year, Nevada will be the first state to draw up rules for autonomous vehicles. While there are many potential benefits to the technology, there are also many scenarios where things could go terribly wrong.
I enjoy driving because I’m always in control, and able to react to what I see unfolding in front of me. I’d love to have the free time on the road, but how much trust can we really put into these machines? Only time, trial, and error will really tell.
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