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Self Driving Cars- We Are Getting Closer, But Are They Safer?

Self-driving cars are no longer a futuristic dream of the past.  Several top automobile companies, like Mercedes, BMW, and Tesla, have been designing and testing cars that can operate themselves.  Tech companies are also attempting to create safe and reliable self-driving cars.  According to researcher HIS Automotive, thousands of driver less cars will be sold in the U.S. in 2020, reaching almost 4.5 million by 2035.  Although these forecasts are legitimate, the U.S. auto safety chief said that these self-driving cars must increase safety at least twofold in order to make a significant difference in the total loss of life that occurs in automobile accidents in the U.S. annually.

Last year alone, there was a total of 38,000 deaths on American roads.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 94 percent of deaths that occur on the road are a result of human error.  It may seem like an easy solution, remove the human, remove the errors.  But, it has been ruled that self-driving software, such as Google’s software, actually might have the same amount of risk as a human driver.  In January, it was announced that NHTSA would soon issue guidelines governing self-driving cars within six months.  These guidelines include, how the vehicles would be tested and what standards they have to be upheld to in order for these cars to be permitted on the road.  These standards are described as a “model state policy” including local regulations of self-driving cars in order to “help support a uniform, consistent framework.”  President Barack Obama has also shown support for autonomous-vehicle technology, proposing 2017 budget calls including spending $3.9 billion over the next 10 years on developing this technology.  These cars should not only function safely, but more safely than vehicles that have human drivers in order to make a noticeable difference in the number of automobile accidents each year.

There are many countries and companies in the race to put the first safe and reliable autonomous car on the market.  The two main countries competing are the U.S. and China.  China’s version of Google, Baidu, is working on developing a self-driving car as well.  Initially, China seemed like a great place to experiment with such a car, considering the amount of deaths that occur there as a result of automobile accidents (261,367 deaths in 2013 according to the WHO’s latest report).  However, it is now understood that self-driving cars operate best in a predictable environment in which all rules of the road are followed.  In China, as often times in the U.S., motorists, pedestrians, bikers, and the like often view traffic signals as suggestions, not as laws that must be followed.  To date, Google’s cars have traveled more than 1.5 million miles and have only cause one crash since 2009.

Google expects for its cars to be in the hands of customers by 2020.  Baidu is not far behind Google, hoping to have fully autonomous cars for commercial purposes by 2019 and more extensive distribution by 2021.  Another benefit of basing operations in China is the willingness of the Chinese people to accept new technology.  A 2015 World Economic Forum study found that 75 percent of Chinese who participated in the study are willing to ride in an autonomous taxi, compared to only 52 percent of Americans.  Eventually, self-driving cars will be the norm and human drivers will be a thing of the past, it is just a matter of when this will happen.

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