Autonomous Cars: Right Around the Corner?

Flashback to your younger days, pondering if life would be like a Jetson cartoon when you were older—living on Mars, driving spaceship-like hovercrafts around, and talking to people without actually moving your lips.

Flash-forward to this year, and one of those estimations may not be too far off. While we cannot exactly call them spaceship-like hovercrafts, several automakers are working on autonomous vehicles—that is, self-driving vehicles.

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And while automakers work away, it may be a while before we see any of these cars on the road, as some legislation is keeping them at bay. Understandably, the governing powers seem to be concerned about letting untested technology share the streets with the general public, as there are worries about endangering lives and property.

Currently, only four states (Michigan, Florida, Nevada, and California—no PA!) and the District of Columbia permit self-driving cars. Notably, California has several new rules in place for manufacturers that are planning to test a self-driving car in public. This includes a mandatory $5 million insurance policy and a fleet that doesn’t exceed 10 vehicles. Additionally, any accidents or incidents where the autonomous driving function needs to be overridden must be reported to the DMV.

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It’s easy to see why people are so interested in self-driving cars. In theory, these cars could help cut down on accidents and fatalities on the road. They could operate regardless of the age or condition of its passengers. They could also drive themselves to a service center for maintenance or repairs. For the driver, they open up the time otherwise spent commuting for more productive or leisurely activity. Finally, all the mental frustration of being lost in an unfamiliar area could be eliminated.

On the other hand, for every advantage of an autonomous vehicle, there seems to be an unanswered question too. For example, if an accident does occur, who is liable? Should self-driving cars have redundant controls for an operator to take control? How reliable and secure is the software behind autonomous cars? What would happen to individuals whose livelihood depended on driving a vehicle, like bus drivers, truck drivers and taxis?

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Beyond the concerns about safety many want to know how much an autonomous vehicle will cost. A survey conducted by JD Power in 2012 pointed out that while 37 percent of respondents would consider buying an autonomous vehicle, only 20 percent would consider it if the feature cost $3,000 or more.

Until autonomous cars become a reality, we’re left dreaming about the Jetson life.

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