Self-Driving Cars: Can We Really Trust Them?

Self-driving cars may be available as soon as 2018 — but are we ready to put our safety in a robo-car’s hands?

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

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12 Responses to “Self-Driving Cars: Can We Really Trust Them?”

  1. James C. Walker
    June 12, 2013 #

    This is neither a mature nor an affordable technology at this point.

    • mds
      June 14, 2013 #

      It will never work.
      Right now these are data collecting vehicles hacking your internet while they troll your neighborhood.
      What we don't know is where the information goes other than the NSA.

  2. Gabriel R
    June 12, 2013 #

    Excellent article! It presents the positive aspects of this developing technology and inspires hope for the future. As with all new things, especially those revolving around A.I., many people have a natural fear of things of which they have little control or do not completely understand.
    Without perfect roads, self-driving vehicles will be impossible to implement smoothly. As with all machines, they are prone to error. Perhaps a feature to allow remote human-interaction might help to clear up some "traffic issues" that are inevitable.
    Despite the many issues there currently may be with this new technology, I believe 2018 is a good estimate of when this will hit the market. As a current Computer Engineering major, I would very much enjoy the opportunity to contribute to this "project."

  3. Jeff Leigh
    June 12, 2013 #

    Everything listed under Bad News also applies to humans. Humans are horrible drivers and prove it on a daily basis. Anything we can do to take distracted people out of the loop sounds like a good idea to me.

  4. Misty Merrifield
    June 12, 2013 #

    The google car logged 300,000 miles as of almost a year ago. The only accident was while it was under human control. The data is clear. Fear and uncertainty (and prohibitive cost) are the roadblocks now. The human drivers are far more scary, unpredictable, unsafe, and law breaking.

  5. Tom
    June 17, 2013 #

    They already have WAY too many "driverless" cars on the road….person in the seat near the steering wheel isn't driving, they're texting, cleaning out the gove box, playing air guitar, putting on make-up, reaching for their cell phone that fell (see texting), reading mail, yelling at kids etc

  6. Deanna Tolman
    June 30, 2013 #

    Can we trust teenagers with a cell phone? Can we trust drunk or stoned drivers? Can we trust people not to drive too fast in bad weather? This technology will eliminate the automobile insurance industry — and therein is the fear. It will also eliminate thousands of new cases of disability, chronic pain, lost wages (and lost taxes), body shops (except for hail storms), and the 50,000 deaths we experience annually from car accidents caused by humans. I think I'll take the robot-brained car — as soon as it's available, reasonable, and gets 100 mpg. I can sleep, knit, read, or play Words With Friends on the way to work. Sweet.

  7. Xavier
    September 2, 2013 #

    The technology, like most new technologies, needs tweaking, but sooner than later (minus too much govt/special interest's interferences ~ not regulations ~ but interferences), would become a driving normal, an alternative to 'manual' driving done today by humans. Humans have long been able to hurt themselves all by themselves when driving regular cars, and in great numbers, and mostly of their own choices, but dealing with blame in self driving accidents, dealing with the perception of lost of choice/ability, and the usual woes of new tech worry will always appear before the introduction. What may help is how the roads are engineered, smart cars with smart roads so those signs aren't missed or misread. Also, this tech will further open up independence for impaired persons, to travel on their own accord not someone elses time and allowance.

    It's not bad too at the cons of a situation, as long as it doesn't stop the creative force to right those cons, dispel falsehoods, and promote the pros (benefits) weight against perceived negatives, and letting people vote with their dollars and sense.

  8. 30_years_spotless_driving_record
    September 30, 2013 #

    This is foolish technology to consider. Time and money would be far better spent on educating the pathetic, easily distracted vehicle operators who do not understand the fundamental concept of having a license: driving is a privilege, not a right. Add to this, no states have any reasonable enforcement of driver competency. Airplane pilots are routinely tested for both skill and health qualifications. In contrast, the vast majority of licensed automobile drivers have only taken one road test and seldom if ever are scrutinized by any proctor or testing agency throughout the rest of a driving career. Let's bring back penalty points and mandate recurring driver skill testing. Those two plans would address distracted driving in a very timely manner, likely saving hundreds of lives at least.

  9. CrazyItalianTC
    October 9, 2013 #

    I think the technique is a horrible idea. Driving is a usage and interesting experience, why give it up to a machine ?

  10. chris walsh
    March 7, 2014 #

    I love it. Especially since essurance will go out of business. No more mandatory insurance. This is why this article was written; it seems objective, but the writer knows most people are idiots and will cry "my freedoms" don't take away my ability drive my leased BMW that I pay half my wages for insurance and lease payments. So, change will come slowly until these Neanderthals are re-programmed.

  11. mikedon3636
    June 30, 2014 #

    Just another example of how technology is killing America. I used to cross a toll bridge and I paid an actual person who supported his/her family, now they are jobless, Next taxi drivers,our train operators, car sales people,farmers,our fast food order takers, then a machine will clean toilets, I will not have an insurance agent, the list will go on and on!! Then even our high paid people will be out of work. before we know it a lawsuit will be handled by a computer, enter your side and a computer will weigh it out. Henry Ford said he wanted all of his employee's to be able to afford a vehicle. Before we know it, only people in the the tech industry will be able to afford their own product. The public, the blue collar man/woman will be broke and have no purpose.Our economy will crash within 10 years. Tech tech company's will bust too because no one will be able to afford it. We no longer live in the days where if you have a good idea, and put in a lot of hard work and sweat can you open a business, the American dream is dying!! Thx google. Big greedy corporations control everything.

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