Monday, February 1, 2016

The Driverless Car

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We are living in the future, or at least that’s what works of fiction set in the year 2015 had us believe.  According to the movie “Back to the Future II”, 2015 was a time of major technological advancement, such as hoverboards, video calling and flying cars.  Predictions that in retrospect, weren’t too far off.  In present day 2015, we do have video calls (FaceTime, anyone?) and although you can’t buy an actual hoverboard at your local mall yet, a few companies have introduced a prototype for a functioning one. As for flying cars…well two out of three isn’t bad.  Yet, although you may not see flying cars in the sky anytime soon, look around and you may spot some driverless ones. 

Driverless cars, also known as autonomous vehicles, are meant to function like conventional cars with one exception:  the actual driver is optional.  That’s because the robot cars are equipped with advanced control systems capable of sensing their surroundings and keeping track of their positions, and thus can navigate without human input.  The idea for autonomous cars is not new, with references dating back as far as the 1930s.  However, it is not until recent times, that autonomous vehicles have started to make wave. 

Search engine giant Google is perhaps the most common name when talking about driverless cars.  The company has been experimenting with the concept since 2009, self-driving over 1 million miles in the streets of California and Texas.  On November 12th, 2015 a Google self-driving car was even stopped by Police officers for driving too slow, (24 miles per hour (mph) in a 35 mph zone). 

Traditional automaker companies such as General Motors, Toyota and Nissan, to name a few, have also joined the revolution, all working on their own model.  The most recent breakthrough in self-driving technology, however, came from Ford Motors.  In November 2015, the company became the first automaker to test their vehicle, the Ford Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research Vehicle, in a simulated city. The 32-acre fake city, Mcity, was created by the University of Michigan and closely resembles a real life urban environment, complete with real road scenarios, such as a variety of street surfaces, traffic lights, stop signs and crosswalks.

However, driverless cars are not just being tested, a French company called Induct Technology, has even put one on the market. The electric vehicle is called the Navia and comes with a hefty price tag of $250,000.  But even if you have the money, it is doubtful that you will be speeding down in this car any time soon. Its top speed is only 12 mph and it is only meant to be used in closed spaces where the use of a traditional car would be impractical, such as college campuses, hospitals and resorts. No flying car, but still pretty awesome right?

Still, the argument for automated cars is not just that it’s a cool concept; many believe that it is safer as well.  According to Google, 94% of car accidents occur as a result of human error.  Experts believe that self-driving cars would decrease this number significantly.  In addition, it would save the US millions of dollars in medical cost and insurance costs associated with traffic accidents.  Saving lives and money?  Now that’s a future we can all get behind of.

Originally published in LatinTrends Magazine, Jan/Feb 2016

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