Co-authored by Theodore Andrew Lee
Driving a car as we know today could be obsolete in the next 20 years.
Presently, manually operating a gasoline engine powered automobile is an integral part of life in North America. Whether you live in a smaller city, or a larger city, such as Los Angeles, without good public transportation, one is expected to drive. We drive to work, to the grocery store, to social events, and even to family gatherings. Driving has also easily become a necessity in smaller cities and in most outer suburbs.
According to the Statista, in 2013 there were about 212 million licensed drivers in the U.S. That means that over a third of the U.S population was licensed to drive. With that many independent drivers on the road, we can understand why the likelihood of dangerous driving has become ever more present. The risks and dangers of driving are a frightening reality, not only compared to other forms of transportation, but to other frivolous threats we hold even higher.
According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2009 there were about 11 million car accidents across the country. The leading cause of car accidents is categorized as distracted driving-- primarily through the use of cellphones. According to the National Safety Council, 25% of all automobile crashes are related to cell phone use, whether by talking on the phone or by texting. Other driver related accidents are caused by alcohol, fatigue, and speeding.
Accidents are not the only liability. The Insurance Institute for Highway (IIH) Safety recorded that in 2013, car crashes took 32,719 lives. This means that there were 10.3 deaths per 100,000 people caused by car accidents. The IIH also determined that there were 1.11 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. These statistics are alarming. In 2013 there were 10,076 deaths (30.8 percent of overall driving fatalities).
Even though there are incidents where the condition of the roads, severity of the weather, and mechanical complications are the primary causes the accidents, human error is still the leading cause of accidents. These disturbing statistics are encouraging some engineers to consider a new future in personal vehicle transportation.
Currently, self-driving technology is being examined and prototypes are being developed. A new reality of transportation can be attainable in the near future. Companies such as Google and Uber are investing money in automated driving for commercial use. Also, auto companies such as General Motors Co., Volkswagen AG's Audi, Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz and Tesla Motors Inc. have announced plans to offer semi-automated driving systems over the next 18 months.
Google has 23 self-driving Lexus RX450h crossovers on the road. These autonomous cars utilize a Velodyne 64-beam laser, which scans the car's surroundings and generates a detailed 3-D map of the surrounding environment. The vehicle also carries seven different sensors. There are two sensors mounted on the front and rear bumpers, that allow the car to interpret what is directly in front and behind so that it can deal with fast traffic; there is a camera, positioned near the rear-view mirror, that detects traffic lights; a GPS, inertial measurement unit, and wheel encoder, that all determine the vehicle's location and keep track of its movements.
Self-driving cars are still rare, however they are becoming more common on the streets near Google's Mountain View, California headquarters. Google's autonomous cars (with people behind the wheel) have driven more than 1 million miles in autonomous driving mode and have only had 12 accidents. Most of these accidents were due to other cars crashing into the back of the cars when stopped.
Engineers are convinced that the use of automated cars will make transportation safer and more efficient for drivers. Cars would drive closer to each other, allowing the 80 to 90 percent of empty road space to be utilized. Cars would become much more efficient on gas as a computerized algorithm would control the majority of the gas use.
More importantly, cars would react faster to obstacles than humans. The number of accidents and deaths related to human error will be undoubtedly smaller when cybernetic cars reach their full potential.
However, making vehicles smarter will require more computing power, data, and testing. There are still complications that developers are working to overcome. Because the cars use a GPS to determine its own location, the location may possibly be off by a few meters, which sometimes confuses the vehicle's computer system. Also, there are instances at four-way stops, where other cars do not comply with the right-of-way rules and the automated car may fail because it assumes all cars follow the rules.
In the future when self-driving cars have the time to develop and improve further, many naturally expect it to make sense that manual driving will become outlawed. Having an automated vehicle would reduce the number of deaths due to distractions, intoxicants, and fatigue.
This may be the future. Something only imagined a decade ago may soon become a living reality.
Theodore Andrew Lee will be a senior at Liberty High School, Bethlehem, PA, this fall 2015. He is the captain of the Junior Varsity Soccer Team and plays Lacrosse for the JV Team. He is co-founder of the Robotics Club and a writer for the school newspaper. Lee is a summer student Researcher at Lehigh University in Microfluidics.
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