While you may have seen Google’s recent video for its driverless automobile technology- where a blind man gets behind the wheel for a trip to Taco Bell, these autonomous vehicles aren’t quite ready for the fast lane. But we might not be too far off from taking a backseat to computer chauffeurs.
Google has already been in talks with all the major automakers as well as a few insurance companies in the past year, and multiple states are now considering following Nevada’s example in legalizing self-driving cars. Which makes us wonder whether all future vehicles be completely autonomous? Will things like accidents, traffic jams, and road rage become relics of the past? Why are we so eager to take our hands off the wheel?
The number of motor vehicle related deaths in the United States has stayed right around 40,000 per year since the 1930’s. That’s pretty amazing considering that the population has doubled, and the number of registered vehicles zooming around has grown from just 26 million in 1931 to an estimated 254 million in 2009.
There’s no doubt that today’s roadways are safer than ever before. But when using statistics it can be easy to forget that these numbers represent real people, and 40,000 per year means that every day nearly 100 real people lose a mother, a son, a sister, or a husband on highways and streets across the US. Though, with the help of new technologies, the next generation of drivers won’t have to worry about getting into accidents or being hit by cars. Because the cars will be worrying for them:
In the next few years, new Ford models will come off the assembly line packed with sensors, cameras, and intelligent software that will help us stay in control in busy or potentially dangerous situations. They’ll keep track of which lane we’re in and how heavy the traffic is around us. Their algorithms will account for road conditions and whether or not the car ahead of us just abruptly slowed down.
These smart cars won’t just watch our blind spots. With biometric sensors built into the seat, seat belt, and steering wheel they’ll make sure the driver is fit to drive. Gary Strumolo, manager of vehicle design and infotronics at Ford Research and Innovation explains:
[W]e’re researching ways to get an even better understanding of the stress level of the driver. Biometric or health information of the driver can help us better tailor the experience when behind the wheel.
The sensors will monitor a driver’s heart rate through their palms with technology like the metal pads installed on modern treadmills and stair climbers at the gym. Infrared sensors will watch for changes in a driver’s temperature, and if the system recognizes signs of fatigue, an alert will be spoken or appear on the dashboard notifying drivers that it may be time to take a rest. It’s conceivable that one day these cars could tell if a driver were having a heart attack or stroke and make an emergency call to the paramedics with GPS location and real-time updates on vital signs.
But what will Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) communication look like out on the highways? Some motorists in Spain recently got a first hand example, though they may not have realized it! The Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) project is a joint venture between a number of automobile technology companies and research institutions whose aim is to make road trains, or ‘platooning’, a common sight for the daily commuter. A road train is created when a number of semi-autonomous vehicles form a line and surrender control to the lead vehicle. The followers are automatically kept in a carefully managed formation while behaving as though they were physically linked with the lead vehicle.
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