The Road To Driverless Cars

The future never looks exactly like we imagine. Visions of the 21st century that were conceived in the 20th tend to get some things right and others very wrong. (See the tongue-in-cheek rallying cry of pop futurists: “Where’s My Jetpack?”)

We may not live in the world of “The Jetsons,” but one technology that would fit there is well on its way toward consumers in ours – the self-driving car.

The New York Times reports that the Transportation Department has made its first formal policy statement about autonomous vehicles. Such cars are still in prototype stages, but the government is trying to keep pace with the rapid advances in this area. Richard Wallace, director of transportation systems analysis at the Center for Automotive Research, told The Times, “It’s not that [the Transportation Department is] trying to put the brakes on it. They’re trying to get out in front of it.” (1)

Google has so far gone furthest with driverless vehicles, but General Motors is also developing the technology. Other companies are likely to follow, given the array of automated technologies already present in today’s models – features that we no longer find remarkable, such as lane departure and blind-spot warnings, self-parking, self-adjusting speed controls and vehicle stability systems.

The concept of a car driven by computers makes some people nervous because of its novelty. But the technology is a continuum, not a binary choice between control by a human driver or by a machine.

We can look upward for analogous situations. We don’t yet have pilotless planes. Even drones have human pilots; they just happen to be on the ground, rather than in the aircraft. But modern planes are heavily automated and, as a result, are safer than ever.

Midair collisions involving commercial aircraft are almost unknown now that automated systems alert pilots who are on intercepting paths. GPS and advanced mapping have made “controlled flight into terrain,” which is another name for flying into a mountain or other obstacle, extremely rare. Advances in instrument landing systems make it possible to take off and land in weather that would have prohibited flying not too long ago. Without removing the human element entirely, technological advances have mitigated a lot of the risks of flying.

The same is also true of highway travel. Ever try hunting for a tiny street sign on a dark road late at night? Or navigating an area unknown to you without a passenger to read a map? It’s a lot easier and safer when your car’s navigation system tells you exactly where to turn. Adaptive cruise control keeps me at a safe following distance, slowing when I get too close to the car ahead of me. Lane-departure warning systems can tell a driver when she’s drifting, though in my experience, there are still a lot of false alarms. This is not to mention built-in computers that diagnose engine trouble and call for assistance in the case of an accident, or the (not-yet-quite) standard of including a backup camera in new vehicles.

Just as with pilots, human drivers always pose a risk for error – and computers always risk malfunction. But as highway speeds increase in some parts of the country, and as summer ushers in a season of family road trips, technology helps human drivers navigate their routes as safely as possible.

Do entirely driverless cars seem farfetched? Maybe. But if I fly into Orlando’s sprawling airport, a driverless train is going to take me from the gate to the main terminal building. Nobody seems to see anything odd about it. We all take cruise control for granted these days; semiautonomous cars are another step down the existing path. Fully autonomous cars are a few steps farther. Like any new technology, it will take getting used to.

Technology is making driving safer in all sorts of ways. From seat belts to air bags to computerized anti-skid systems, we get into fewer accidents than we did when I was growing up, and we walk away unscathed from a lot more of those that do happen. The statistics for fatalities per miles driven tell the story: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows a marked drop in fatality rates in the last 20 years, from 1.73 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1994 to 1.10 fatalities per 100 million VMT in 2011. (2)

Full speed ahead on the newest technologies. They will get us where we want to go more reliably and safely than ever.


1) The New York Times, “Self-Driving Cars for Testing Are Supported by U.S.”

2) NHTSA, “Fatalities and Fatality Rates, 1994 – 2011”