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Self-Driving Cars Propel Us into the Future

With cars that parallel park themselves, prevent accidents and alert you if you're about to back into your mailbox, it's not too far of a leap to imagine a car that could just drive itself.

As baby boomers are faced with relinquishing the wheel, Generation Y is afflicted with automotive apathy, and everyone in between can't seem to put down their cell phones, a self-driving car looks more and more likely to be heading our way. According to David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, this may provide just the impetus necessary for this technology to take off.

To make the NHTSA's dream a reality, the cars' interactions with human drivers and their vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications must reach a fail-safe level of reliability.

Dr. Chris Urmson, director of Google's automated car project, boasts that the company's fleet of Priuses will stop for pedestrians, negotiate mountain passes, and read red lights. But despite Google's accomplishments, this is a far cry from merging with traffic on the highway or backing off from a car whose driver might be looking down at his cell phone. Nonetheless, it is “highway carnage” that Google hopes to put an end to.

Self-driving cars could also enable hundreds of thousands of disabled drivers to maintain or regain their independence. Urmson cited the story of a blind man using one of Google's Priuses to drive himself to Taco Bell to buy a burrito – a level of freedom previously unheard of.

But despite the promise that these cars may hold, there is still the concern over whether consumers would invest in this new market of ultra-safe, automated vehicles. A recent JD Power survey showed great public enthusiasm for these new features, but little interest in paying an additional $2,000 to $3,000 extra for it. Even so, Peter Mertens, senior vice president for research and development at Volvo, remains optimistic, and says that the price will come down with volume, as has been the case with other advancements such as stability or cruise control.

And if society were to accommodate automated cars, who is to blame if crashes occur? The driver? The automaker? This may present the greatest hurdle yet to automakers.

When we compare man and machine, Strickland cites the 33,000 motorists who died in 2010. Human error was to blame in 90 percent of those cases – a vulnerability that machines are immune to by default.

But anyone who has owned a computer or a smartphone knows that machines have weaknesses of their own, and the possibility of your car giving you the Blue Screen of Death seems infinitely more worrisome than driving the car yourself. Because of this, Strickland declined to say when automated cars may hit the market, claiming that they “need to get it right, because if it's not properly handled, consumer confidence will be lost.”

Full story at Txchnologist

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