driverless car
May/June 2016

The Driverless Car

Coming to a showroom near you

BYJim Prueter
Brace yourself. In just a few short years, you might not be piloting your own vehicle. Your car will do the work for you. Driverless cars, or autonomous vehicles, have been under development for decades by automakers such as Ford, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo, as well as technology companies like Google. A major step toward bringing these cars to the nation’s roads happened just this February, when vehicle safety regulators announced their decision to consider the computer system piloting Google’s autonomous vehicle as a “driver” under federal law.
 
To many, the notion that we will forgo the pleasure of driving is both unfamiliar and audacious. But many others would leap at the opportunity to skip the stress of navigating the daily commute with the push of a button.
 
Beyond convenience, the technology has the potential to save millions of lives. Car crashes rank among the leading causes of death in the United States. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data, driver error — such as driver’s inattention, internal and external distractions, driving too fast for conditions, poor directional control, and falling asleep at the wheel — accounts for more than 90 percent of crashes. In a world of self-driving cars, some researchers predict traffic wrecks and fatalities would decrease drastically. 
 
We’re already halfway there. Today’s automakers offer “semi-autonomous” driver-assist technologies, such as optics-and-radar-based cruise control, automatic lane-keeping assist, parking assist, automatic emergency braking, and forward-collision braking. 
 
The completely driverless car is going to happen — and quickly. The NHTSA intends to rewrite guidelines for self-driving cars more comprehensively in the next few months, and manufacturers such as Ford, Nissan, Toyota, Volvo, and Audi have indicated plans to offer affordable autonomous cars to the public by 2020 or earlier. Some estimates predict up to 75 percent of all vehicles on the road will be autonomous within 20 years.
 
As we approach a driverless car era, skeptics may find they have little to fear and much to embrace.
JIM PRUETER, an automotive writer based in Phoenix, has provided auto reviews and advice for more than 20 years.
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