Autonomous Vehicles: Will they eliminate accidents?

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Sometimes, it’s necessary to ask “Where has all of this great technology taken us?”. And sometimes the answer is not a good one. Consider nuclear power. While nuclear power can provide a lot, it is not a greenhouse gas emitting power. The storage of nuclear waste is problematic because it won’t be degraded for thousands of years. Although rare, nuclear accidents can be a problem for the long-term. Fukushima Daiichi’s nuclear power plant may need to be decommissioned within 40 years. The surrounding area may also not be livable for as long.

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Auto Safety Technology

According to the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), 5,419,000 accidents involving automobiles were reported for 2010. 1,572,000 caused 2,239,000 injuries, and 32,885 died. This is not the worst it has ever been. In 1972, 54,589 people died in automobile accidents. Statistically, this was 26 deaths per 100 000 citizens of the United States. Comparatively, 2010, which saw 10.8 deaths per 100,000 people, was only 11. Automobile technology over the past 100 years has made it possible to improve both power and efficiency as well as safety. This has allowed more people to walk away from an accident without being injured or make them more likely to survive.

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This has been a good thing. You are now 50% less likely to be in an auto accident than you were forty years ago. We are not driving any more than our ancestors. The automobile technology of today is full of features that allow drivers to maintain control over their vehicle in various conditions and keep them safer in an accident. Drivers are not in practice.

ABS (antilock brake system) is an example of a wonderful invention that helps drivers prevent their brakes locking up and causing them to lose control. Many modern vehicles have electronic stability control (ESC), which keeps them safe on slippery roads. Some of the most recent vehicles have Lane keeping technology (Toyota LKA), which prevents drivers from drifting off the road. These are wonderful inventions. However, most people use them as a crutch.

Some studies have shown that more than 90% of the 5,419,000 accidents involving automobiles are human-caused. Why are we driving so fast to start ABS on a gravelly mountain road or to start ESC on a rainy nightway highway? We are driving so distracted, tired or sick that we need LKA to remind our to keep in our lane.

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Out of the Equation, Human

This is where autonomous vehicles step in. What if human error was the reason for more than 90% of all automobile accidents? Some studies have shown that more than 95% of them are caused by human error. Automakers are currently working on this technology. Autonomous vehicles will eventually require a simple GPS location to get from Point A to Point B. The sophisticated software monitors traffic conditions and routes you safely and quickly to your destination. What would happen if an autonomous vehicle could operate perfectly?

The 2010 NHTSA report’s numbers show that automobile accidents, using the 90% human fault figure, would have been reduced to 541,900, with 157,200 injuries or deaths. If the human being wasn’t included, the death toll for 2010 could have been decreased to 3,289 deaths. Despite this, there will be accidents due to mechanical failures (5-10%). It’s inevitable that autonomous vehicles will still be mechanical.

Only one thing will prevent autonomous vehicles from being adopted and used by everyone is the human driver. I imagine commuters and long-distance travellers would enjoy being able to chat with their friends in the car, catch up on news, and even go to sleep. My boss used to joke about me being the only one who hit the snooze button on the way to work. It was not true! However, some drivers, including myself, might not enjoy having this privilege taken away from them by machines. Can autonomous vehicles and humans share the road?

Before becoming a journalist, Ben Jerew worked as a senior automotive technician. He quickly rose to prominence in covering the future automotive technology.

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