Self-Driving Cars: Can We Really Trust Them?

As recently as 2009, a driverless car seemed like a sci-fi fantasy — heck, why not make it fly or swim while you’re at it? Then, in 2010, the folks at Google revealed that they had been working on a self-driving car, and suddenly, the future was not only here, but it might even be cruising along in the lane beside you.

300,000 testing miles later, Google now projects that they will be able to bring self-driving technology to the market by 2018. Several car manufacturers (including Toyota, Audi, and BMW) have also been developing their own driverless vehicles, and self-driving cars are already street-legal in California, Nevada, and Florida. But are we getting ahead of ourselves? We aren’t talking about a vehicle on a track or in the relatively roomy space of the sky. We’re talking about free navigation of city streets and highways with all their attendant hazards (accidents, road work, pedestrians, other drivers). I think of San Francisco, with its wacky rules about left turns, one-way streets that suddenly switch directions, and ubiquitous double-parkers, and I wish the poor driverless cars luck.

The technology of self-driving cars

As we discussed in an earlier post, Google’s self-driving car relies on a combination of sensors (including lasers, radar, GPS, and a car-mounted camera) to get around. The car synthesizes all this data in real time  and uses artificial intelligence to make decisions while it’s in motion.

On top of that, cars in general are becoming increasingly capable of communicating with one another. So when they’re equipped with high-speed broadband (as some models will soon be), they could potentially receive alerts about road conditions from other wired-up cars.

The developers of these vehicles envision a more efficient world, where autonomous cars could be packed together in “road trains” and multiple passengers could share a single self-driving car (like Zipcar, only it comes to you). Passengers could then theoretically spend their commute reading, sleeping, surfing the web, talking, texting, and relaxing.

Self-driving cars: the bad news

Google’s car can do a lot of things — keep a safe driving distance, find a parking space, brake to avoid a collision — but as of mid-May, it still couldn’t obey road signs or handle poor weather conditions (and there are conflicting reports about whether it can recognize pedestrians). Clearly, there’s still a long way to go before the cars are fully autonomous and ready for prime time … or rush hour.

Additionally, a self-driving car’s ability to get where it needs to go depends on a highly detailed, error-free map of roads and signals. This mapping already exists in GPS programs like Google Maps, and it’s getting more sophisticated all the time, but occasionally it’s just plain wrong (like when Google Maps sent me down a pedestrian-only cobblestone street in Ljubljana, Slovenia. That was fun.).

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) seems to feel the technology is far from ready. In fact, they recently called for a ban on the use of automated cars for purposes other than testing until they have conducted a thorough study.

Self-driving cars: the good news

The logistics of a successful driverless car may seem hopelessly complicated, but many cars are already available with “assisted driving” features like autonomous braking, self-parking, and sensors that warn you if you’re getting too close to a car or obstacle. So far, results are promising. Cars with autonomous braking, for example, had a substantial decrease in collision claims. Obviously, there’s a big difference between automatic brakes and a totally driverless car, but that gap is closing every day.

Self-driving cars also have another advantage over human drivers: they don’t get tired, distracted, or angry. According to the National Institute of Health, more than 90 percent of car accidents are caused by human error. Once the current technology issues are resolved, driverless cars have the potential to drastically reduce road accidents. These cars also offer mobility for people with health issues (such as impaired vision) that prevent them from driving standard cars.

There’s safety in numbers too. In a way, the more driverless cars are on the road, the better driving conditions will get. Cars will be increasingly more connected to each other and to government traffic systems, reducing congestion, accidents, and thefts. Also, the vehicles will learn as they drive and, using cloud technology, report everything from route information to road conditions, which can be accessed by other cars with the same software.

So how safe are self-driving cars?

Well, right now, it’s too soon to say. But if the technology continues to improve, we might be far safer in driverless cars, on roads filled with other autonomous vehicles, than we ever were with human drivers.

What’s your opinion? Would you trust a self-driving car to chauffeur you around?

Related links

What’s Next for Driverless Cars

Cars Get Their Own Social Network

The Trend Towards Driving Less: Is It For Real?

The American love affair with cars dates back to the day the first Model T rolled off the assembly line — and for a span of nearly 60 years (1946 to 2004), we drove more miles every year. But according to a new report by U.S. PIRG, that trend abruptly ended in the last decade, and Americans (especially teens and 20-somethings, a.k.a. “Millennials”) are now driving less. The number of young people getting drivers licenses has also declined from generations past.

Are cars really being jilted, or is this just a temporary dalliance with a new lifestyle? Will Americans return to their beloved automobiles? Here’s why Americans are driving less and what it means for the future of transportation.

The cost of cars (and car ownership) is a deterrent

Although the so-called “Driving Boom” ended in 2004 — before the recession hit — there’s no doubt the economy is one reason people are driving less. High unemployment means less income to spend on cars and no job to commute to. For those with cars, gas prices are a factor: the current average price of a gallon of gas in the U.S. is around $3.63.

Transportation options have improved

America has gotten much more bike friendly in the past decade. New bike lanes and greenways are in place or underway in major cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, and Tucson. Bike-sharing programs have been very successful in Minneapolis, Denver, Boston, and Washington, DC — and NYC recently launched the largest program in the nation. Non-bikers have more options too: new or expanded light rail systems have opened in Seattle, Denver, Phoenix, Charlotte, and Salt Lake City (among others) within the past 6 years.

This leads to a “chicken-or-egg” type of question: Are people using their local transportation systems more because the systems have gotten better? Or are they choosing their cities, neighborhoods, and jobs because of their proximity to good transportation? Maybe it’s a bit of both. In any case, the availability of convenient, fast, green public transportation is luring an increasing number of people away from the stress and congestion of a highway commute.

Access to the web makes taking public transportation easier

Today’s transit riders have a number of convenient ways to determine the best and fastest way to get around. Bus and train schedules are available in real time online, and smartphone apps can keep you updated on ETAs and delays. How unfondly I remember the old days of standing at the bus stop, shivering in the summer cold (this being San Francisco), wondering when (or if) my Muni ride would ever come. Today, the bus still might be late or AWOL (this being the San Francisco transit system), but thanks to my apps, I know whether to leave the house later, take a different line, or just forget it and hail a cab. The new technology makes taking mass transit far less frustrating and more appealing.

The internet has made face-to-face contact less important

It seems people (especially young people) don’t feel the need to see their friends as often when they are in constant touch through texts, Facebook, instant messaging, and other virtual ways to connect. More people hanging out online means fewer drivers on the road.

Boomers are leaving the workforce

Millennials aren’t the only generation that’s driving less — many baby boomers are now retiring and no longer need to commute. Some older Americans have also stopped driving because of health or mobility issues (though this may change once self-driving cars become a viable option for consumers).

We’re driving less now … but will the trend continue?

Not all experts think so. Some feel the decline is mostly due to high unemployment among Millennials and will reverse when the economy improves. Others think that once Millennials get married and have kids, they’ll move to the suburbs and start driving more, just as their parents did. But it seems to me that the sustained reversal of this 60-year trend can’t be a fluke. Though many 30- and 40-somethings couldn’t imagine giving up the freedom of a car, today’s teens and 20-somethings don’t seem to have the same dependence on or relationship to their vehicles. A generation that bikes, walks, and takes public transit everywhere will be reluctant to embrace long commutes by car or live in places where driving is the only option.

If this decline does continue, it will have far-reaching effects for car manufacturers, energy companies, city planners, and, yes, car insurance companies. According to the study, U.S. transportation policy still assumes that the number of drivers will increase and is counting on gas-tax revenues to fund highway improvements when they should be shifting their focus to mass transit and bike infrastructure.

What’s your opinion? Is this trend a major turning point or just a minor detour? Do you find yourself driving less often than you used to? Let us know.

Related links

Closing the Gender Gap: Women Drivers Now Outnumber Men

The Latest Trends in Teen Driving

Car Seat Safety: 5 Myths Debunked

It’s summertime and school is out! For kids, this time of year is about tossing back a few juice boxes and getting on the move. There’s no shortage of sandboxes to visit, birthday parties to crash, and petting zoos to be terrified of.

Of course, your kids aren’t getting anywhere without their trusty chauffeurs — that’d be you, Mom and Dad. And it might be time to ask yourself: Am I up to date on my car seat safety knowledge?

There are more misconceptions about child safety restraints than you might think. Let’s clear up 5 of the most common child car seat myths and help you start your kids’ summer off right.

Car seat safety myth 1: securing a child car seat is hard to screw up

Actually, a recent IIHS study confirms that properly securing your child car seat is really easy to screw up. In particular, failure to use what’s called the “top tether” is a major issue. This top tether, a strap that connects the top of the car seat to your vehicle’s rear shelf, helps prevent a car seat from tipping forward in an accident and causing injuries to your toddler’s head and neck.

Sadly, nearly half of drivers aren’t using this key safety item. Reasons for neglecting the top tether range from parents not knowing it exists, not knowing how it works, or feeling like they don’t have time to bother with it. What’s more, of the drivers who do use the top tether, 31 percent are using it incorrectly. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the LATCH system (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) in your car and avoid these needless missteps.

Car seat safety myth 2: I never had a child car seat, and I survived … my kids are fine without them.

According to the CDC, child safety seats reduce infant fatality risks by 71 percent and toddler fatality risks by 54 percent. For kids aged 4 to 8, riding in a booster seat reduces injury risks by 45 percent compared to using a seatbelt alone. If you never had a child car seat growing up and came out unscathed, you were very fortunate — but it really wasn’t the safest move. No need to play those unlikely odds with your own youngsters.

Car seat safety myth 3: my infant can use a forward-facing car seat

A forward-facing car seat isn’t safe for kids until they’re over the age of 2. However, many infants outgrow their baby seats (the first one a child uses) before turning 2, and so their parents mistakenly believe this makes them ready to face forward.

A better option could be the convertible car seat. Convertible seats are convenient because they’re big enough to accommodate your growing infant and they can face either backward or forward. When your child is actually ready for the bodily direction of big boys and girls, you can avoid the hassle of buying a whole new seat.  

Car seat safety myth 4: after the toddler stage, kids don’t need a child car seat

It’s easy to assume that once your child starts acting more grown up, he or she is ready to ditch the child car seat. But you might be surprised to know that experts at the NHTSA recommend keeping kids in booster seats up until age 12. The booster will raise them up so seatbelts fit snugly (and safely) around the thighs and chest, rather than the face and stomach.

Car seat safety myth 5: all child car seats are the same, so it doesn’t matter which one I choose

Cars seats can differ wildly in their ease of use, the way they fit your child, and their compatibility with your car. Since kids need a safe car seat for their very first ride home from the hospital, it’s important to try out a few models well in advance.   

For help finding the right child car seat, check out the NHTSA guide.

Related links

Get more interior-based insight: find out which (adult) seat is really the safest in your car.

A Brief History of the Motorcycle: From Boneshakers to Superbikes

Summer is motorcycle season, a time to get that motor running and head out on the highway. But do you know how the motorbike became the iconic symbol of freedom, adventure, and coolness that it is today? Let’s check it out.

History of the motorcycle

Sylvester Howard Roper unveils his “Steam Velocipede,” a 2-wheeled contraption powered by a steam engine. Though groundbreaking, his design did not catch on.

Gottlieb Daimler introduces the first “true” motorcycle. Consisting of a single-cylinder internal combustion engine mounted on a wooden frame with iron-banded wooden wheels, it was called the “boneshaker” for its jarring ride.

John Boyd Dunlop smoothes the way for cars and motorcycles alike by inventing the first air-inflated pneumatic tire.

French automobile manufacturer DeDion-Buton introduces a lightweight, 4-stroke engine that makes mass-production of the motorcycle possible.

American entrepreneur and bicycle manufacturer Charles H. Metz creates America’s first production motorcycle (he’s also been credited with coining the term “motorcycle”).

Indian Motorcycle Company begins production of their motorcycle, with a 1.75hp engine based on the DeDion-Buton design. Indians were the world’s best-selling motorcycle up until WWI.

Iconic motorcycle brand Harley-Davidson is launched and starts producing bikes with their signature V-Twin engine.

World War I begins. American and European armies rely on motorbikes to gather reconnaissance and deliver messages.

In the more motorized world following WWI, Americans and Europeans embrace the motorcycle, creating a boom in the 1920s. Renowned companies like BMW and Moto Guzzi enter the marketplace. However, the Great Depression forces many manufacturers out of business.

Motorcycles — especially European models — experience a post-war sales boom. Japanese companies create their own successful domestic market.

Classic biker film The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando as the leader of a motorcycle gang, is released. The motorcycle becomes a symbol of rebellion.

Rebel Without a Cause is released, with James Dean in the role of a troubled teenager. Though James Dean did not ride motorcycles in any of his films, he is nonetheless associated with them and is said to have owned several, including a 1947 Czech Whizzer, an Indian Warrior TT, and a 1955 Triumph TR5 Trophy.

Yamaha enters the American market.

Baby boomers come of age and take up motorcycling, creating the biggest sales boom in motorcycle history.

Grey Advertising launches its iconic campaign, “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda.” The wildly successful campaign positions motorcycles as a casual, everyday vehicle, rather than one associated with lawlessness and discontent. Motorcycle registrations soar.

The WWII movie The Great Escape is released and features Steve McQueen’s character famously jumping a 60-foot fence on a motorbike.

BELL Helmets introduces the first full-face motorcycle helmet, the Star.

Honda unveils the CB750. With its revolutionary 4-cylinder, single overhead cam engine, it is considered the first “superbike.”

Early 1908s
Kawasaki and Honda debut the first motorcycles with electronic fuel injection systems, making fuel injection the norm.

California’s EMB, Inc. introduces the world’s first commercially produced electric motorbike, the Lectra. 

The world’s first production hybrid motorcycle, Eko Vehicle’s ET-120, goes on sale in India.

Our own motorcycle milestone

Esurance now offers motorcycle insurance in Wisconsin! And we’ll be adding other states soon. In the meantime, you can get excellent motorcycle coverage through our partner.

What do you think are the most important milestones in the history of the motorcycle? Leave us your comments below.

Happy riding … and keep the shiny side up!

Related links

Top 5 Reasons to Ride a Motorcycle
Summertime Travel: Motorcycle Safety Tips
Insure Your Toys of Summer
Motorcycle Safety: 5 Tips for Drivers
The History of the Bicycle

5 Far-Fetched Movie Gadgets That Really Exist

Fans of futuristic movie gadgets, rejoice! It’s summer, that time of year when your multiplex is packed with science-fiction blockbusters. As a tech-inspired company, we at Esurance couldn’t be happier. On top of providing fun summer escapism, sci-fi flicks exist to forecast possible futures for our society — and the fantastical technology that might drive us there.

Of course, these predictions can turn out horribly wrong (Blade Runner’s proliferation of hover cars in 2019 seems a bit hasty). But you might be surprised at just how often they turn out right!

Here are 5 of our favorite sci-fi movie gadgets that have already come to life.

Medical tricorder from Star Trek

What it is: A sensor that Starfleet doctors wave over patients like a magic wand to instantly receive medical info on a handheld computer.

Real world incarnation: The Scanadu Scout. This medical marvel (coming early 2014) does more or less the same thing: place the sensor to your forehead and get your vital signs on your smartphone for help detecting infections on the spot.

How it’s worse than the movie gadget: It must make contact with your body.

How it’s better than the movie gadget: Easy for everyone to use, and you don’t even have to be a member of Starfleet!

Marty McFly’s shoes from Back to the Future II

What they are: Shoes. Now ordinarily, footwear wouldn’t belong in the pantheon of mind-blowing movie gadgets. But these are exceptions. They feature wraparound ankle straps, glowing LED lights, and power laces! We know what you’re thinking: “MCFLY, YOU BOJO, THOSE BOARDS DON’T WORK ON WATER!!!”

Real world incarnation: The Nike MAG. Yes, Nike styled a gorgeous replica of this famous sneaker, releasing a limited 1,500 pairs in 2011.

How they’re worse than the movie gadget: No power laces. We know, that’s huge … but they’re still pretty fly — McFly, that is. (Feel free to steal that one.)

How they’re better than the movie gadget: No tripping over the space-time continuum.

Personalized billboards from Minority Report

What they are: Mall billboards that recognize people individually and casually offer products they might enjoy, like “a refreshing Guinness” (for protagonist John Anderton) or “assorted tank tops” (for noble eyeball donor, Mr. Yakamoto).

Real world incarnation: Digital billboard from Japan’s NEC Corp. This sci-fi-worthy ad tool (unveiled in 2010) can recognize your age and gender within seconds and offer custom shopping suggestions.

How it’s worse than the movie gadget: It can’t call out to you by name.

How it’s better than the movie gadget: It can’t call out to you by name.

Lightsaber from Star Wars

What it is: Seriously?

Real world incarnation: The Maxablaster. That’s right: what sounds like a ‘90s workout video is really a Dutch optic engineer’s (probably) misguided but (definitely) fascinating venture into Lightsaber-dom. Basically, it’s a 38-million-candlepower flashlight that can illuminate a cloud 4 miles away … and lightly sear skin.

How it’s worse than the movie gadget: Not mass-produced (you’ve really gotta be the top Jedi to earn it).

How it’s better than the movie gadget: Safer, non-solid beam — you have to believe not slicing each others’ limbs off would’ve really improved Luke and Vader’s relationship, right?

Giordi La Forge’s VISOR from Star Trek: The Next Generation

What it is: A device that creates the sensation of sight for the blind in the Star Trek universe (Star Trek again? What can we say — we’re fans).

Real world incarnation: Google Glass. Google admits Star Trek has influenced much of its technology, and Google Glass can surely be seen as a nifty twist on the VISOR. While Google Glass doesn’t imbue the blind with sight, it does let you interact with the world hands-free and with visual stimuli. Plus, in the proud tradition of the VISOR, it’s a crazy-looking headband.

How it’s worse than the movie gadget: Could it lead to unsafe transportation?

How it’s better than the movie gadget: Color choices! Honestly, wouldn’t La Forge have enjoyed a nice tangerine or sky-hued VISOR for when he was off-duty?

Esurance and Google Glass

If you’re still curious about this revolutionary device, you’re not alone. Luckily, our very own web production manager, Steven Mautone (an #ifihadglass Explorer), will soon be taking Google Glass out for a spin. Does it make life easier? Does it pose a distracted driving risk? Does it laugh in the face of inferior movie gadgets dreamed up by Bradbury, Dick, or Spielberg?

All will be answered … so make sure to check back soon as we track Steven’s experience.

Related link

Will Google Glass end distracted driving?