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Ever wonder what cars would be like if computers had been invented before the ‘horseless carriage’? Google http://www.google.com/about/company/ wondered, and they’re finding out for themselves.  In case you haven’t heard, they’re championing what they call an autonomous car with computerized driving systems that replace the human behind the wheel.  The vehicles can drive themselves using a laser system, cameras and a detailed mapping system that allows them to navigate and sense other vehicles on the road.  In the initial phases, a driver sits in the driver’s seat in case something goes awry.

Google says the cars will significantly reduce the 33,000 auto fatalities and 1.2 million injuries suffered on U.S. roads annually, since most accidents are caused by human error, and computers – at least in theory – hardly ever make mistakes. Google product manager Anthony Levandowski https://plus.google.com/116490346377824752000#116490346377824752000/posts says that a huge factor in Google’s autonomous vehicle program is an effort to improve public safety.  He says that research shows that 95% of vehicle crashes are the result of driver error and that most of that is caused by distracted driving. Computer systems, on the other hand, don’t get distracted from the task at hand.  They also don’t drink, take drugs, or fall asleep at the wheel.  Not only that, but Levandowski says that the computerized car outperforms professional drivers in averting collisions in some scenarios.

“Our mission to help improve people’s lives by transforming mobility,” Levandowski said at a recent transportation forum in Austin, Texas.

Last year, the pros and cons of autonomous vehicles were the subject of a symposium at Santa Clara University in California. The pros include the fact that if autonomous vehicles become the norm, they’ll bring the U.S. back to the forefront of the auto industry, an industry that’s been taken over largely by Asian and European automakers.  On the other hand, issues of legal liability are problematic with the vehicles.  When one of them crashes, who’s at fault, the automaker or the person who owns the vehicle? Insurance is another issue that remains to be addressed.

Google’s autonomous vehicle program has been around for eight years and according to program director Sebastian Thrun http://robots.stanford.edu/cv.html, as of August 2012, the company’s  test vehicles had achieved  300,000 miles of driving with almost zero accidents.

The next step is making legislative changes at the state level to allow autonomous vehicles to hit the nation’s highways. So far, only California, Nevada and Florida have passed laws permitting the cars on the road, with some restrictions.

An article in Forbes http://www.forbes.com says that Google’s interest in the vehicles is more than altruistic. The business in autonomous vehicles could be worth trillions of dollars in the long run, making Google’s current portfolio look meager in comparison. Forbes says that driverless vehicles will be the norm by the year 2040 and that today’s vehicles will look quaint in comparison to the next generation of fully computerized cars.

Google isn’t the only company that’s getting into the driverless car market. Audi is developing its own fleet, as are Volkswagen, BMW, Nissan and Toyota. The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which hits showrooms in September of this year, will be the first offered to the public that’s able to operate driverless a portion of the time. The car has a steering assistance feature that keeps the vehicle in one lane at speeds of up to 124 miles per hour.  Turning, on the other hand, has to be done manually. The vehicle helps the driver navigate in stop-and-go traffic, using cameras and sensors that gauge the speed and distance of the vehicles nearby, and adjusts acceleration and braking accordingly.  The vehicle requires a human driver to be present and alert in the driver’s seat and will shut off if two hands aren’t gripping the wheel.

Toyota’s Lexus LS car uses light detection, cameras and a technology they call LIDAR to gauge distances and environmental changes in order to navigate driverless. The concept vehicle is currently being tested at a new Japanese facility that replicates actual driving conditions.

Audi’s driverless vehicle prototype employs a small laser sensor that fits inside the front grille in order to operate. Nissan is also getting in the computerized car act with its own self-driving project that uses a system that entirely bypasses the steering column in order to navigate.

Will drivers take to the idea of giving up the steering wheel and riding in a fully computerized vehicle?  A survey of 17,400 vehicle owners by J.D. Power and Associates http://www.jdpower.com/ revealed that only 37% of responders said they would be interested in owning a completely autonomous vehicle. That figure fell to 20 % when responders were told that the technology would cost an additional $3,000 per vehicle. With an additional cost of $3,000, 25% of the male responders said they’d be willing to pay the additional amount for the autonomous vehicle, while only 14% of women said they would buy it. Another survey of 2,006 people revealed that 49% of responders reported that they’d feel comfortable in a driverless vehicle.