A computerized chauffeur to deal with the hassles of driving? You have to admit it sounds appealing. Once the stuff of science fiction and futuristic predictions, the concept of a driverless car is quite close to coming true. Google and a number of other tech companies as well as some car makers have been hard at work to bring the vision to a city street near you.
How close? In 2012, Google founder Sergey Brin said Google’s self-driving car would be available for the general public by 2017, although last year project director Chris Urmson indicated the release might be pushed back to 2020. Still, we’re on the road to reality, and the Google technology is nothing short of amazing.
At the moment, Google has two basic forms to driverless technology: equipping existing cars such as their fleet Lexus and Prius hybrids, and manufacturing the company’s own small, plastic two-seat vehicle. Each version has roughly $200,000 of advanced electronics, computers and radar/LIDAR systems onboard. LIDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is a remote sensing technology that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure variable distances. These light pulses, combined with other data, generate precise, three-dimensional information about the shape and contours of the area in which the vehicle is driving.
But, while incredible technical progress is being made, there are some very low- and no-tech obstacles in the way of a truly driverless car.
Technology frequently advances faster than social systems, and that’s certainly the case with the driverless car. Existing traffic laws just aren’t up to speed. Many of them have been on the books for decades and all were written with the assumption that a human being would be behind the wheel.
To date, only four of our 50 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that expressly allow driverless vehicle testing on public roads. However, they require special license plates, insurance packages and driver certification, stipulating that a certified driver must remain behind the wheel ready to assume control of the vehicle if the computer system fails.  Other states are currently considering legislations.
As of August 2014, the latest prototype driverless vehicle had not been tested in heavy rain or snow because of safety concerns. 
Construction Zones, Debris and Human Interaction
Because driverless cars rely primarily on pre-programmed route data, they do not obey temporary traffic lights nor do they recognize construction zone routing. There are also concerns that the cars may revert to a slower, extra-cautious mode to complex unmapped intersections. Because they have difficulty identifying harmless road debris, the vehicles often swerve unnecessarily. And, the LIDAR technology cannot spot some types of potholes or discern when a human such as a police officer is signaling the car to stop.
Speed and Control
The current Google-produced driverless car has a top speed of 25 miles per hour, a threshold with some potential problems. Initially, it also lacked a steering wheel and brake pedal, resulting in an experience akin to an amusement park ride. Later models have since added brake pedals and steering to comply with the regulations of the four states that permit driverless cars.
A recent study from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute warned that as many as 12% of passengers may experience motion sickness while riding in driverless cars. While there are no remedies, the study suggested that passengers who are susceptible to motion sickness might want to try closing their eyes or sleeping, a solution demanding a great deal of confidence in driverless technology!
As of July 2015, 23 of Google’s driverless cars had been involved in 14 minor traffic accidents on public roads, although Google maintains the driverless vehicle was not to blame in any of the incidents. Eight were rear-ended, two were side-swiped, one involved another driver rolling through a stop sign, and one was being manually driven by a Google employee. In one of the rear-end accidents, three Google employees suffered minor injuries, a first in driverless car history.
What Lies Ahead?
Although it gets most of the buzz, Google’s driverless car isn’t the only one on the horizon. Several manufacturers are exploring the possibilities. Volvo, for example, has indicated they will test driverless cars in their headquarter city of Gothenburg, Sweden by 2017. German auto makers Daimler Benz, BMW and Volkswagen chipped in to buy Nokia’s “HERE” GPS system as a counter to Google. Those are serious players and encouraging news for fans of a driverless future. But let’s put this in perspective. Even if the price of driverless technology drops radically (say by 50%) as technology frequently does, by 2020 you could possibly buy a driverless car for $100,000. That’s more than three times the cost of an average new car today, more than enough to pay for taxis for several years, and the technology probably still won’t be perfect. Couple the high price tag with the fact that the average American car on the road today is 11.5 years old, and it’s safe to guess that we have a long wait before driverless vehicles go mainstream. More likely, given the limitations of the present technology, driverless cars may initially find a use as taxis in congested urban areas like New York City where slow moving traffic is the norm.
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