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Posted at 10:42 AM ET, 04/09/2013

Has the time finally come for the driverless car?


California Gov. Edmund G Brown Jr., front left, rides in a driverless car to a bill signing at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012. (Eric Risberg - ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The driverless car is one of those rare innovations that have quickly gained the support of just about everyone. Futurists love them for their potential to radically transform the future of transportation. Transportation planners love them for their ability to reduce congestion and gridlock. Safety advocates love them for their ability to reduce road accidents and fatalities. Energy aficionados love them for their ability to reduce our carbon footprint. And, unlike other technologies that eventually hit up against entrenched corporate interests, there’s no deep-pocketed bogeyman in Washington to make the driverless car go away.

Until now, one of the leading hurdles for the driverless car future was the psychological one — convincing ourselves that a bunch of robots driving on the highways, communicating amongst themselves with satellites and sensors, was actually safer than the alternative — a bunch of humans driving on the highways, texting and calling away. Slowly but surely, though, we are chipping away at that psychological roadblock based on the data. After more than 300,000 miles driven with the Google Car, the evidence is beginning to stack up — the driverless car appears to be driving us to a better, safer future in which we’d burn less gas and we’d save more lives.

Who could argue with that?

Now, it’s up to the courts to help the legal system catch up with the impressive advances of our technology sector. Three states — Nevada, California, and Florida — already have passed laws making it possible for people to operate driverless cars, while others, such as Michigan and New Jersey, are attempting to make the driverless car a reality, reports the Associated Press. For now, the courts appear more willing to rule on what drivers can’t do in their cars while driving — such as checking maps on their mobile phones — than to rule on what driverless cars can do while driving.

Of course, even with the current momentum around the driverless car, that’s not to say that we’ll see a driverless car anytime soon. Even Google admits that a true “fully autonomous driverless car” is at least five years away. Automotive supply company Continental points to 2025 as the first year that we could see a true, fully autonomous driverless car, reports Motor Trend’s Todd Lassa. And that target date could get pushed back even further if the thus-far sterling driving record of the driverless car suddenly becomes marred with accidents. While autonomous driving car enthusiasts talk up the creation of "the car you can't crash," the reality is that machines, just like humans, are capable of errors. And, as with any complex system, the consequences of a driverless car network traversing the nation are unclear — it might lead to a host of new issues, from urban sprawl to a boom in the number of cars on the road to say nothing of a potential increase in fuel demand.

Yet, for all of these caveats, many of the technologies that would make the driverless car a reality already exist. Today’s cars can parallel park, spot items in the rearview mirror and creep along in slow-moving traffic jams. Luxury carmakers such as Audi continue to integrate new autonomous driving technologies into their latest vehicles, while tech companies continue to search for ways to integrate the latest technologies — from the cloud to big data to social media — into the latest creations from Detroit.

The next step is to build out the driverless car ecosystem so that the driverless car becomes more than an expensive toy for the rich technological elite super-cruising around the city. For example, new iterations of car-sharing networks along the lines of today’s Getaround or RelayRides might enable anyone — even those without driver’s licenses — to use driverless cars at any time. Stuck at the office and not able to get home in time to make it to your daughter’s soccer practice or school play? Just call up a driverless car to chauffeur her there.

When Motor Trend is ready to proclaim “the beginning of the end of driving”, it’s clear that something has changed in the way we think about our cars. Until now, we’ve always viewed driverless cars in terms of what they lack — drivers — and not for what they possess: superior safety features and improved fuel performance. But, remember, we once defined the original driver cars as "horseless carriages" and we questioned the ability of humans to drive as well as horses. Which, today, sounds rather ludicrous. In the future, the idea that driver cars could ever perform better than driverless cars might strike us as similarly quaint.

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By  |  10:42 AM ET, 04/09/2013

 
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