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Autonomous Automobiles

If you are waiting for the advent of the self-driving car…you missed it. It arrived in 1478, made by an Italian. You may have heard of him– Leonardo da Vinci? Granted, though it was high tech for its time, it was rather primitive compared to the new cars that are coming out. Some of these are far more impressive.

 

You may have heard some news of recent developments in the autonomous vehicle department. A few are listed below.

 

Road Trains

 

Volvo is trying to get out in front with autonomous auto tech, although in this case that means following. In May, they tested a new Road Train technology in Spain. The project is called SARTRE, or Safe Road Trains for the Environment, and the general idea of the train is to have one car link to the car in front of it and follow, without the driver needing to worry about steering until they reach their exit. Basically, several cars use their cruise control and cameras, devices which have already been in use for some time, in conjunction with wireless communications between the cars, to imitate the actions of the preceding cars. Trains like these are intended to improve fuel economy and allow the driver to be more at ease. The test in Spain consisted of three different Volvos following a human-driven truck down the road at 120 mph. And the cars made it.

 

Autonomous Functionality

 

Volvo also announced a different auto function that they will be appearing in their 2014 cars. This is Traffic Jam Assistance, a fully autonomous system that lets cars drive themselves at speeds below 31 mph. It controls the brakes, throttle, and steering completely independently. This is turned on or off at the click of a button, and fully yields to driver input.

 

There is also Nissan’s car safety steering which we have previously mentioned.

 

Google, too, is getting in on the autonomous arena. The internet search company has branched out to the road, and has a fleet of modified Priuses (Priusi? Prii? Priuss?) that are enabled to drive alone, and these cars have racked up over 300,000 miles of driving in California, and these autonomous Google cars have been spotted in other places across the country. For example, Washington, D.C. They’re saying the system is supplemental to the driver rather than created to fully replace them, but the cars have gotten a good deal of self-driving mileage in. Not to mention the fact that, in a year, the only car in the fleet that was in an accident was when a person had taken control of the wheel. The cars are running better than most people—perfectly following traffic laws and speed limits, driving courteously, and never getting road rage.

 

Ramifications

 

It looks like the shift towards autonomous cars is in our future. Nevada, Florida, and California have already passed bills allowing autonomous vehicles on the roads, and Washington, D.C. is considering such a bill.

 

So what happens if autonomous cars start taking the road? There has been a great deal of discussion on this topic.  First of all, because of reduced reaction time and between-car communication, cars can drive closer together and reduce traffic jams. Most accidents are caused by human error, so eliminating that would mean significantly fewer crashes or car-related injuries. Also, since drivers or, more accurately, passengers wouldn’t have to be focused on the road, much of the time spent on roads could be spent doing other things at the same time. Increased mobility would be available to the blind, the elderly, or even young children.

 

But beyond that? There are other ramifications to consider, some good and some not so much. People who make their money from the road—taxi drivers, truck drivers, and so forth—could find themselves out of a job. On the other hand, there would be a large increase in jobs to improve the software and hardware behind the cars. There may be fewer parking lots as cars could find their own way home during the day and pick you up in the evening. Driver’s licenses could become obsolete, so DMVs would be far less crowded. This does mean decreased lines, but probably also means decreased jobs.

 

Quite frankly, if self-driving cars become commonplace, life as we know it could be completely different. But speculation is difficult, especially as the technology is still very new. If the shift comes, it won’t start for several years, and it will take a good while after that before it becomes commonplace.

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