In 2010, 1.24 million people died in road accidents worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Research shows that 93% of those accidents were caused by human error. This annual manmade disaster takes more lives and injures more people than all the natural disasters put together, including tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, typhoons, landslides, and tornadoes.
The world’s auto makers constantly add safety features to their new cars in an effort to reduce the number and severity of road accidents. Airbags and antilock brakes were added in the past. Now some cars come equipped with cameras and sensors that perform a number of safety tasks. Among them is a Forward Collision Warning system (FCW) that monitors the distance between your car and the one ahead and issues audible alerts if you get too close.
In addition, some models come with a blind spot monitoring system that lets you know if a car is in a side or rearview blind spot. A pedestrian detection system alerts the driver if a pedestrian is approaching the car’s path. A lane departure warning system lets you know if it’s safe to change lanes. And a self-parking system parks the car safely at the curb. Adding such systems can increase the price of a car by $2,000 or more.
All these extras can help to reduce the traffic carnage, but as long as humans are at the controls there will be lapses of judgment, distractions, inattention, falling asleep at the wheel, drunk driving, speeding, and all the other human failures that lead to accidents.
In the near future, driverless cars may become the answer to drastically reducing road deaths and injuries. Still in development, self-driving cars replace the human at the wheel with automated systems. A combination of cameras, sensors, lasers, and GPS automatically navigate the car safely in even the heaviest traffic. They keep a proper distance from other cars, sense and evade obstacles, and apply brakes as needed. Google’s driverless test cars have driven 700,000 safe miles (1,270,000 km), mainly in San Francisco Bay Area traffic.
Google’s prototype test car contains $150,000 in automated equipment, including a 64-beam laser system that generates a 3-D map of its environment, precise within inches. It will take mass production to eventually make a driverless car affordable for the average owner. The Google system drives the car at the posted speed limit, maintaining a safe distance from other cars. It also provides an override that allows a human driver to take control by stepping on the brake or turning the wheel. Toyota, Nissan, Audi, BMW, Volvo, Mercedes, and other car makers have their own driverless vehicles in various forms of development.
Google and the car makers estimate that fully developed driverless cars will be ready for market by 2020. California, Nevada, Florida, and Michigan are the only states that currently allow driverless car testing on their highways. All 50 states and the federal government will have to change their traffic laws to accommodate driverless cars before they can be mass produced and sold to the public. The question is, will people buy them when they are ready? It will probably be many years before we are ready to hop in, punch in the destination, and catch up on our reading while the car delivers us safely to the office, the mall, or the hair appointment.