Some proponents of self-driving cars have predicted that they would be available to consumers this decade. After all, Google already has a fleet of functional vehicles that can move through traffic without a human driver, and big automakers have developed autonomous vehicles as well. However, other experts now say that such vehicles may not be sold to the public until 2025.
Experts predicted the 2025 availability date at the 2013 Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress, according to the Detroit News. The SAE issues standards that affect every aspect of car design. Panelists at the conference said that “semiautonomous” vehicle technology, which combines steering and vehicle-detection systems to keep cars in the lane and far enough away from the vehicle in front of them, would be available much sooner.
Much of the debate about self-driving cars centers on the potential for distracted driving. In theory, autonomous vehicles have the potential to greatly reduce traffic accidents, since most crashes are caused by human error. However, a malfunction could have serious consequences. And if drivers cannot safely attend to other matters while the vehicle is traveling, then the benefits of the technology are greatly diminished. In October, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that it would spend $1.75 million on a multiyear research endeavor to determine what human controls would be necessary in self-driving cars.
A recent survey found that 49 percent of drivers would prefer a driverless car. Google has successfully driven a robotic Toyota Prius over 140,000 miles in heavy traffic in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Many features of self-driving cars are already available in today’s models, such as lane departure warning systems, crash-avoidance, self-parking and adaptive cruise control.
Convenience is one of the features consumers welcome most in self-driving cars. Autonomous vehicles offer the promise of turning “wasted” driving time into time available for other activities. All of the activities that currently amount to distracted driving – cell phone use, eating, conversations with passengers – could be engaged in without threatening safety. Commuters could get work done or simply relax as their cars transport them to their destinations.
The potential for enormous gains in traffic safety is another predicted benefit of driverless cars. Google has claimed that at some point in the future, self-driving car systems will be able to decrease traffic accidents by 90 percent. This would amount to saving almost 30,000 lives annually, preventing nearly 2 million injuries and decreasing costs due to car crashes by about $400 billion.