“The future is here,” said State Sen. Greg Ball as he announced his recently introduced legislation to open New York roads for tech and car companies to begin testing autonomous, self-driving cars.
“This is a tremendous advancement in automobile technology,” he said in a press release on June 26. “Vehicle accidents, year after year, always rank in the leading causes of death in New York state and across the United States. In the early testing stages this futurist technology has proven to be safer and more reliable than human-operated vehicles. I have introduced this bill because I believe that New York state should welcome this technology with open arms.”
Sen. Ball, whose 40th District includes Lewisboro and Katonah, said the bill would open roads for driverless car testing by companies like Toyota and Google to help usher in a new, safe and efficient era of self-driving cars. Currently three states have passed laws allowing for driverless cars — Nevada, Florida and California.
Google has been a particularly popular name in self-driving technology. In August 2012, Google announced that its small fleet of driverless cars had been test-driven more than 300,000 miles over a wide range of traffic conditions without a single accident under computer control.
Technology and statistics
Using a sophisticated network of advanced computer sensing technology, as well as GPS and a variety of radar, computer systems are being created that can technically sense their environments, but with the calculation and precision of a computer.
Using technology to solve “big” problems is a key part of Google’s founding philosophy, said Sebastian Thrun, a Google executive and software engineer in the field of autonomous robotics.
“And one of the big problems we’re working on today is car safety and efficiency,” he said. “Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use.”
Just how big of a problem do cars cause? Aside from their environmental impact, Google cites World Health Organization figures showing more than 1.2 million people die every year in road traffic accidents.
In the U.S., motor vehicle crashes are one of the leading causes of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2009 more than 2.3 million adult drivers and passengers were treated in emergency departments as a result of being injured in motor vehicle accidents.
In addition to the lives lost, the impact of traffic accidents are also economic. In 2005 the CDC estimated the lifetime costs of crash-related deaths and injuries among drivers and passengers at $70 billion.
Forecasting the future
Google believes its driverless technology may one day cut the number of global road-traffic accidents in half, and beyond the savings in human life, may transform transportation and drastically reduce energy consumption.
“We’re also confident that self-driving cars will transform car sharing, significantly reducing car usage, as well as help create the new ‘highway trains of tomorrow,’” Mr. Thrun said. “These highway trains should cut energy consumption while also increasing the number of people that can be transported on our major roads. In terms of time efficiency, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that people spend on average 52 minutes each working day commuting. Imagine being able to spend that time more productively.”
Google’s mention of highway trains refers to the possibility of electronically connecting vehicles through a network to drive in sync with one another. But Google is not the only pioneer on the frontier of autonomous vehicles. A number of car makers, including BMW, GM, Audi and Nissan, all expect to have driverless cars on commercial markets by 2020. Many of these car manufacturers have announced a slow roll-out of increasingly advanced autonomous features, such as self-parking and the ability to be completely driverless in traffic and at slower seeds. Already some vehicles (mostly on the high end of the luxury scale) come with semi-autonomous features — the 2013 Lincoln MKZ and new Ford Fusion can self-steer to maintain lane position, parallel park and follow other vehicles with an advanced cruise-control function. According to Sen. Ball, a report on the progress of the autonomous car is expected to be presented to Gov. Andrew Cuomo by February 2015.