Can self-driving cars save us from ourselves?

News, Crime, Traffic law

Every day on your drive to work, you might see a dozen people texting or using their phones while in their car. And not just teenagers confused by delusions of immortality, but actual adults who should know better.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine Americans are killed every day from car accidents that involve distracted driving. Even with all the statistics out there about the carnage that comes with distracted driving, we seem powerless to stop doing it. At this point, we need someone to save us from ourselves. And while “someone” isn’t coming, the self-driving car is well on its way. Yay?

Rise of the machines

Anyone who has seen The Terminator might respond with a certain unease to the idea of self-driving cars. Are the machines going to overthrow us? Perhaps. But the distracted driving epidemic may force us all to stow our collective angst.

Thankfully, according to this recent Fortune article, the Google self-driving car is closer than we thought. While auto executives have predicted the technology is at least a decade away, Google’s software and artificial intelligence have already enabled sensors that can identify everything from a stop sign to a child chasing after a ball, and instruct the car to react in a safe manner. The writer even goes on to speculate that while Google’s car isn’t perfect, the prototypes may already be safer than the distracted, frustrated, and impatient drivers on the road today.

The big carmakers are hard at work as well. Japanese automakers Honda, Nissan, and Toyota are all in a race to bring a self-driving car to the market by 2020, as is Europe’s Volkswagen. So is the Detroit gang, with GM hoping to demonstrate a self-driving prototype a year from now, and Ford predicting an autonomous car by 2020. So, if you have a child around 10, they may never need a driver’s license.

A strange and powerful urge

That could be a very good thing. Teens are still the most active group using phones while driving, and scarier yet, one out of five 18-20 year olds don’t think texting while driving does anything to alter their driving performance. Not all young people are so deluded: 40% of teens say that as a passenger in a car, a driver put them in a dangerous situation while using a phone. But the fact that some teens recognize the danger doesn’t seem to be stopping the behavior.

Laws around texting and driving are already on the books, of course, but don’t seem to be helping as much as one would hope. There isn’t a federal law (do we need one?), but Washington State was the first state to pass a texting ban in 2007. Currently, 46 states and the District of Columbia ban text messaging for all drivers; however, there are still four holdouts that seem to think it’s not important enough to legislate. They should probably all get in a hot, crowded room and watch this heartbreaking video that aired on ESPN recently, where the victim said the last thing he saw was the glare from the cell phone in the car that hit him.

Self-driving cars may not be the future we predicted (we won’t be texting while jetpacking anytime soon), but they may be the future we need nonetheless.

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