We’ve all had those days: rushing around, trying to get errands done. You finally picked up the dry cleaning, and now you’ve got to get to the post office before it closes. So you go, pedal to the metal, thinking about what you need to get at the grocery store for dinner, when it hits you — or, you hit it. While your mind was someplace else, the car in front of you stopped, and you rear-ended it.
What could have prevented the accident? The obvious answer is that you could have — by paying attention. But that answer isn’t so simple. Driver error is the most common cause of traffic accidents, and with cell phones, in-car entertainment systems, more traffic and more complicated road systems, it isn’t likely to go away. But if drivers aren’t going to concentrate on the road, who is? If technology continues on its current course, your car will do the concentrating for you. Automakers are developing complex systems that allow cars to drive themselves. They’re also furthering existing technologies such as self-parking and pre-safe systems. You may even be surprised to find out your old clunker already sports some driverless technologies.
In this article, we’ll learn about the technology behind cars that can operate with minimal input from drivers, including how far away these cars are from production and some of the legal issues around letting the robots take over.
Dawn of the Driverless Car
You can’t just jump head-first into driverless cars. That’s a recipe for driverless disaster, my friend. One of the earliest driverless cars was Stephen King’s “Christine,” remember, so let’s all be grateful that idea didn’t make it to market before the quirks had been worked out.
An early — and non-murderous — first step toward driverless cars came in the 1980s, and it’s still with us today: anti-lock brakes (ABS, according to that terrifying light on the dashboard). Technically, anti-lock brakes do need the driver to step on the brake pedal in order to work, but they perform a function that drivers used to have to do themselves. When a car is braking hard and doesn’t have anti-lock brakes, the wheels can lock up, sending the car into an out-of-control skid. In a car without anti-lock brakes, the driver has to pump the brake pedal to keep the wheels from locking up. With anti-lock brakes, the system does the pumping for you — and it does it better and much faster than you ever could, thanks to speed sensors in the wheels.
About ten years later, manufacturers used those same sensors to take the next step toward driverless cars: traction and stability control. These systems are a step up the sophistication ladder from ABS. They use the sensors at the wheels to detect when a car might go into an out-of-control skid or roll over, and then they use ABS and engine management to keep the car on the road and the shiny side up. Unlike a driver, these systems can apply the brakes and increase or decrease power to individual wheels, which is often better than brakes or power being applied to all four wheels by a human foot mashing the brake pedal in a blind panic. See? Already your car is a better driver than you, and we’re only at, like, 1995.
The future is now!
So, we moved from “Christine,” a driverless car that actively wanted to kill you, to the cars of the 1980s and 1990s that want to keep you safe. In the 21st century, where science fiction is everyday life, pre-safe systems are more common, and not just in quarter-million-dollar cars upholstered in rich Corinthian leather. This technology is available even in everyday family cars; the kind upholstered in whatever best hides sippy-cup slip-ups. The systems differ depending on the car, but what all have in common is that they can anticipate crashes and prepare the car to keep the occupants safe.
Say you come around a corner only to find a garbage truck stopped in your lane. In a car with a pre-safe system, an alarm might go off as you near the truck’s odoriferous maw. While you yell the swear words of your choice but still do nothing useful, the pre-safe system might start priming the brakes so that just touching the pedal will apply their full force — if you ever find the presence of mind to stomp the brake pedal, that is. While all that’s going on, the car will reduce engine power, which will slow the car and reduce the severity of the crash, if there is one to come. At this point, some of the high-end systems are able to stop the car completely, all by themselves, usually under a certain speed. Finally, if the system detects that a crash can’t be avoided, it’ll prepare the airbags for deployment and tighten all of the seat belts. What’s really amazing is that it will do all that in less time than it takes the driver to simply slam on the brakes. It’s only a matter of time before the car sighs and expresses its disappointment with your driving ineptitude.
You know what else makes our cars sad for the puny humans who drive them? Our terrible parking abilities, especially parallel parking. Several manufacturers offer automatic parking systems on everything from SUVs to compact cars and hybrids. The systems use sensors all around the car to guide it into a parallel parking space — no human input required. Before it can work, the driver has to find a parking space, position the car next to it, and use the navigation screen to tell the car where it should go. Still, the self-parking system is a big achievement in driverless car technology. With it, the car behaves like a driver might — reading the area around it, reacting accordingly and going safely from point A to point B. While it’s not the same as sitting back and relaxing while your car drives you home for the night, it’s the first step in that direction.
Thanks to breakthroughs in technology, motorists could see a gradual but substantial drop in the number and seriousness of accidents over the long term, as well as much cheaper car insurance. The technology is being embraced at a rapid pace. In fact, Ford Motor Co. said it expects vehicles to have “fully autonomous navigation and parking” after 2025.
Innovations could lead to decreases in car insurance premiums by more than 60 percent in the 2020s from current levels, said Donald Light, director of Americas Property/Casualty Insurance Practice at financial technology consulting firm Celent. The advances include the increasingly prevalent driver-monitoring devices, collision avoidance systems and automated traffic-law enforcement, such as speed and red-light cameras, as well as robotic cars.
Some Ford cars already detect when a vehicle has entered a driver’s blind spot. A vibration in the steering wheelalerts a driver that the car might be unintentionally veering out of a lane. Collision avoidance systems are becoming so commonplace that they are featured in TV commercials, including one in which a driver averts backing over a child.
Most major insurers already have telematics programs. The driver-monitoring devices are installed in policyholders’ vehicles to track mileage and driving habits. Users tend to become safer drivers. The payoff for the motorist is a discount. Contact your insurance representative for details.
Vehicles able to drive themselves will account for about 9 percent of global auto sales in about two decades, according to a forecast published last month by auto industry consultant IHS Automotive. The study focused on autonomous cars, which can drive with “no attention needed by the driver.” Such cars are not yet available for sale, but IHS predicts that they will be available by about 2025. IHS expects global sales of self-driving cars in 2025 to be about 230,000 — about two-tenths of 1 percent of the 115 million cars expected to be sold that year.
The property and casualty industry, which Celent said derives nearly 40 percent of its premiums from vehicle insurance, acknowledges that driverless cars in particular could put a major dent in the sale of coverage for personal and commercial vehicles. “If driverless cars become a reality, and if, as a result, there is a dramatic reduction in the number and severity of vehicle-related accidents, there is no doubt it is going to have a major impact on auto insurance,” said Loretta Worters, vice president for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry-supported research group.
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