By Michael Hatch,
Special to Wheelstalk.com -
It’s the stuff of science fiction. At least it used to be.
Not long ago, so-called “driverless cars” occupied the same space as flying vehicles in popular imagination. Now there’s a difference: the latter has not yet gotten off the ground with manufacturers, regulators, or consumers; the former is actually happening.
The first jurisdiction to license the vehicles is one associated with dice-rolling: the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles approved this week the United States’ first autonomous vehicle license. But firms involved with the development of self-driving cars are hoping that it’s no roll of the dice but a sure thing.
Developed by Google, the currently-designed self-driven car relies on video cameras, radar sensors, lasers, and a database of information collected from manually driven cars to help navigate the roads it travels. But many other OEMs are working on similar technology. Prototypes have already covered hundreds of thousands of miles without accident or injury.
Does this mean we can all look forward in the not-do-distant future to efficient traffic flow with cars driven by computers and transporting passengers occupied with other daily errands? Likely not, but the prospect of neutralizing much of the human error that causes so many accidents is now a real, and tantalizing, one.
Cars that drive themselves don’t cut others off; they don’t change lanes without signaling; they don’t send emails while they drive. In short, they don’t do any of the incredibly dumb things that humans do every day while driving. The potential implications of a proliferation of vehicles that maintain by programmed decree a safe distance from other vehicles and stop before collisions take place are vast.
No matter how far technology goes, people will still have to sit behind the wheel. We cannot become passive passengers in robot-driven vehicles. The mentality that accidents are impossible will have to be avoided at all costs, and care and attention will always have to be taken. No technology can completely eliminate the risk inherent in rolling around at 100 km/hour in a box of steel with thousands of others.
Lawmakers and regulators will have to grapple with this, and soon. Nevada is the first U.S. state to consider and license these vehicles; others are not far behind.
If Google – or any other company – is able to bring reliable and safe self-driven vehicles to market, then consumers will want to have access to them. This will require a significant regulatory and legislative overhaul to take into account technology that only a few years ago would have been dismissed as the stuff of fantasy.
Michael Hatch is the Chief Economist with the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association: www.cada.ca