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Autonomous (Self Driving) Cars: The Countdown Continues

July 5, 2014

Self-driving cars are coming. Currently four states — California, Florida Michigan, and Nevada — have passed legislation that enables companies to test their self-driving car technology on the roads. The Washington D.C. DMV published its regulations for autonomous vehicles in April, which are expected to take effect this month barring any objections.

Google unveiled a prototype of its self-driving car on May 27 and plans to use its home state of California as a testing ground. John Simpson, director of the taxpayer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, recently told the LA Times he's urging the California DMV to postpone the September 16 start date of its regulations by 18 months. The groups believes more testing and public scrutiny is necessary to ensure the safety of the state's 25 million licensed drivers.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson via Wikimedia Commons

A February Harris Interactive poll found that 88 percent of Americans would not feel safe in a self-driving car. But that reality isn't slowing down Google and others who want this futuristic technology to become reality for everyday drivers.

How It All Works

The "face" on Google's self-driving car (the headlights are the eyes and a radar apparatus the nose) is the first thing people will notice about its tiny exterior. But the fact there are absolutely no driver controls, such as a steering wheel and brake pedal, on the interior is what has many consumers worried.

A LIDAR (light detection and ranging) sensor called a Velodyne HDL-64E is mounted to the top of the vehicle. It provides a detailed map of the roads and surrounding environment, right down to potholes and road cones. Google Street View Cars have driven (and continue to drive) virtually every road in the U.S. and several European countries to create these detailed maps, despite lawsuits alleging the company has been simultaneously spying on residents.

There are four radars attached to the front and rear bumpers to detect the speed of cars in front of and behind the vehicle. A video camera is mounted where the rear-view mirror would otherwise be located. It detects the presence of pedestrians, other cars, and even deer running across the street. A GPS unit supplements all the aforementioned technology for further accuracy and safety.

A central computer located near the rear axle of the car then processes all of this information to determine and control steering, acceleration, and braking.

Advantages Outweigh Potential Dangers?

A widely circulated video of Morgan Hill, Calif. resident Steve Mahan "driving" a Google self-driving car to Taco Bell in 2012 was significant because he's 95 percent blind. Not only would driverless cars be a boon for 21 million legally blind Americans, they would also give elderly drivers whose reaction times have diminished more options when researching cars in a few years.

Cab drivers would likely balk at the idea of driverless technology, as drunken drivers would be able to get inebriated and still get home legally without paying a hefty fare. Elliot Garbus, of Intel's Automotive Solutions Division, told USA Today that 95 percent of auto accidents are caused by human error. Google reported in August of 2012 that its test vehicles had successfully driven 300,000 miles without even a fender-bender.

Autonomous cars would also be a blow to municipalities that rely on revenue from speeding tickets. Google reported in May that its self-driving cars have never received a moving violation in any state.

There is no definitive answer as to when consumers will be able to head to a dealership and buy an autonomous car of their own. But based on Google's persistence and diligence, it will likely be sooner rather than later.

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