Over the last two years Google has been quietly, (and some say illegally) testing a fleet of autonomous vehicles that navigate the highway without any direct input from human drivers. Sebastian Thrun, director of Google’s autonomous vehicle research program, wrote that the project had achieved 200,000 miles of driving without an accident while cars were under computer control.
This week the State of Nevada finalized a few modifications to its rules of the road that will allow robotic driven vehicles to be driven legally on its highways.
Several automakers are deploying sensor based safety systems that help prevent accidents. Some simply alert the driver, and others go so far as to correct drivers actions, or inaction. Adaptive cruise control and emergency braking help prevent collisions. Blind-spot detection, adaptive headlights and night-vision assistance systems are also offered in a number of 2012 models. However, what Google is doing makes these advances seem as rudimentary as the improvement from bias ply to radial tires.
Ask any motorcyclist who has a few miles under his or her belt, and they'll tell you they've had someone turn left in front of them which either caused them to wreck or resulted in panic braking. Once this technology becomes mandatory, and most vehicles on the highway are auto driven, accidents involving human error will plummet, making it safer to ride a motorcycle.
But, as the saying goes, there's the rub. Human error accounts for almost all the 33,000 deaths and 1.2 million injuries that now occur each year on the nation’s roads. The financial impact is staggering.
In 2008, AAA did a study and estimated traffic accidents cost Americans an estimated $164.2 billion dollars annually. Those costs are borne by each of us in the form of auto and health insurance premiums, emergency and police services, property damage, lost productivity and quality of life.
Vehicles that drive themselves will be able to avoid 99% of all accidents, eliminating those costs, saving us all money, reducing stress, and giving us back hundreds of hours that is now unproductive time spent behind the wheel.
But, hold on a minute. If cars, trucks and buses are all on auto-pilot, that leaves only a small minority of road users, namely the motorcycle community with the free will and distracted driving capabilities to throw a monkey wrench into the system.
That leaves only one conclusion. Just as Henry Ford did to the horse-drawn carriage with the Model T, Google's auto-pilot technology signals the (beginning of the) end of the motorcycle as a transportation vehicle on our nation's highway.
With a financial incentive in the billions of dollars, the insurance lobby of the future will ultimately pressure the federal government to enact laws that restrict where "self-directed" vehicles are allowed. (more after the poll)
Sven A. Beiker, executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University told National Public Radio, on NPR's Morning Edition, there are "significant issues" to overcome before anyone can accurately predict a future when we will see completely autonomous vehicles. Right now the computers and cameras cannot recognize a police officer, or highway construction worker who is directing traffic to proceed in a way that is illogical or counter intuitive to the best route input into the computer's guidance system. Then there is the vulnerability of the guidance systems, global positioning satellites, to jamming by hackers and cyber terrorists.
Google watchers and those with inside knowledge of the technology believe auto-pilot vehicles will first be deployed as delivery vehicles, taxis, and buses. How quickly the technology transitions from utility vehicles to personal vehicles is anybody's guess at this point, but the sad truth is that once a tipping point is reached, say 75% of vehicles are running on auto-drive, the push to rid the highways of "dangerous self driving vehicles" will begin in earnest. In the NPR report, the author even alludes to a "future ban" on human operated vehicles.
When that happens, so will your ability to pick a destination on a map, load up the motorcycle and head out across this great country with your only worries being rain, bugs and that distracted driver who turns left in front of you.