Self-driving vehicles unlock efficiency possibilities

Have you ever considered what is the most dangerous and least reliable component in every vehicle? Research consistently shows that it’s you (and us), the driver the behind the wheel.

Since the advent of the automobile, vehicle engineering and design have been trying to save us from ourselves, largely through automated technologies. Vehicle automation has worked to make our driving more convenient (automatic door locks, the check engine light, self-parking), safer (seat belt reminders, anti-lock brakes, collision avoidance systems), and more efficient (regular and adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance).

Our cars -- through a variety of sensors, cameras, radar, and other technologies -- are increasingly able to sense themselves and the world around them. But what if the ability to sense the world around it evolve into the ability to communicate with the world around it? Such is the potential reality posed by vehicle connectivity.

Connected vehicles employ two-way communication with both infrastructure (such as GPS, 3G wireless Internet) and one another (such as the traffic and collision avoidance transponders/systems mandatory on all commercial airplanes). In our automobiles, this connection allows for much more than simply making a mobile call, browsing the Web, avoiding a traffic jam, or navigating to a destination. When combined with enhanced vehicle automation, connected vehicle technology promises to bring us truly autonomous cars.

With autonomous operation, the driver can disengage and the car’s automated and connected technologies can intelligently, safely, and efficiently take the proverbial wheel. Google’s self-driving car is a big step in that direction; a video showing a blind man using the car to run errands to Taco Bell and the dry cleaners has garnered more than 3.6 million views to date.

But imagine the additional possibilities. For instance, the epidemic of texting-while-driving is well known, with studies showing that doing so is as dangerous or more so than a drunk driver getting behind the wheel. But what if -- via autonomous vehicles -- the solution wasn’t to stop texting while driving, but rather to stop driving while texting? And what might the implications of autonomous vehicles be for traffic congestion, fuel economy, parking, and much more?

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