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Self-driving cars part I: The possibilities

Ever since its invention about 130 years ago, the automobile has continued to evolve in ways that improve the safety, reliability and comfort of the driving experience. Some innovations are simple; others complex. But thus far, automakers have not been able to produce a commercially available vehicle that fulfills the ultimate science fiction fantasy: full automation.

Human error is responsible for more than 90 percent of car accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As long as human beings are in control of the car, our ability to reduce accidents is limited. That’s why self-driving cars are the ambitious goal of many auto manufacturers and even companies like Google.

An interesting article that recently appeared in the MIT Technology Review discussed the fact that self-driving car technology is getting so advanced that many car companies predict that such vehicles could be in widespread production within the next decade. However, the author warns that the dream of self-driving cars may not be as close as we think.

First, let’s talk about what could be possible if self-driving cars became the standard mode of transportation. If the NHTSA’s estimate is correct that 90 percent of car accidents are caused by human error, self-driving cars would theoretically prevent 90 percent of the 33,000 deaths that occur on U.S. roads each year. Worldwide, car accidents kill an estimated 1.2 million people per year.

Researchers also predict that self-driving cars would be more eco-friendly and would virtually eliminate traffic jams; thus saving billions of wasted hours each year. According to the article, self-driving cars would likely travel in orderly “platoons,” which would cut down on aerodynamic drag. This would result in an estimated 20-percent decrease in fuel consumption.

Also, rush hour traffic would eventually be a relic of the past. Automated driving would be efficient enough to quadruple the amount of cars that can travel simultaneously on a stretch of highway.

This all sounds great, right? unfortunately, for all the innovations that have already been made, self-driving cars may not be available any time soon. Check back later this week as we continue our discussion.

Source: MIT Technology Review, “Driverless Cars Are Further Away Than You Think,” Will Knight, Oct. 22, 2013