Driverless cars? A few years ago, it would have seemed like an impossible dream. But after watching videos of Google’s driverless cars on actual roads, it’s easy to become a quick convert.
The cars being designed now rely on an elaborate set of lasers, radar, and cameras in order to see potential hazards that even humans may not notice. For the best glimpse into how these sensors work, watch this TED talk by Chris Urmson, the Director of Self-Driving Cars at Google. It’s pretty impressive – the Google car responds to potential accidents well before the human cars around it do.
It’s also fun to watch how people react as they “test drive” a car without a steering wheel or pedals. Google is testing 23 Lexus SUVs customized with the self-driving technology in Mountain View, California and Austin, Texas. The company has also developed some of its own self-driving prototypes that it is currently testing in California.
Though all of the self-driving cars currently have drivers included to take over if needed, the cars have done exceptionally well on their own. Google has reported a strikingly low number of accidents – only 15 accidents after 6 years and 1.9 million miles. The best part? In none of these accidents was the self-driving car at fault.
Google currently averages about 10,000 autonomous miles per week on public streets.
And Google is not the only company to test self-driving cars. Elon Musk of Tesla predicted that the company will offer self-driving cars in as little as three years, Apple is racing to develop its own self-driving electric car, and popular ride-sharing service Uber has also been working on the technology.
The societal benefits of self-driving cars are enormous, according to a number of studies cited by The Economist in a recent article about what the future of driving could look like.
Traffic would be better, for one. Sebastian Thrun, a former leader of Google’s self-driving car project, predicts that we could eliminate 70 percent of the cars on the road. Several other studies measuring the effect of additional cars in a car-sharing program estimate that self-driving taxis could reduce urban traffic by as much as 90 percent.
A study by researchers at The Earth Institute of Columbia University found that New York City’s taxis could be entirely replaced by a smaller fleet of driverless cars, with improvements for consumers. “Currently, the average wait time for a passenger hailing a yellow taxicab is 5 minutes,” the authors said. “A fleet of 9,000 shared, driverless vehicles that were centrally coordinated to respond to passengers ‘hailing’ them via their smartphones, could reduce the wait time to under 1 minute, while increasing the vehicle utilization.”
Most importantly, autonomous cars would improve safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 94 percent of accidents are caused by human error, primarily distraction, alcohol, or speeding – all problems that don’t affect driverless cars.
The technology being developed by Apple, Google, Tesla, and Uber may well save millions of lives while reducing traffic, commuting time, and parking hassle. And we could see it in the next few years.