It's time to leave the driving to the droids

Every day, America’s roads fill up with texting drivers, drivers jabbering on their cell phones, drunk drivers, inconsiderate drivers, drivers with a lead foot, drivers with poor eye sight, road-rage drivers, inexperienced drivers, lousy “what’s a blind spot?” drivers, drivers inspired by games like Grand Theft Auto, drivers putting on makeup, drivers who fall asleep, daydreaming drivers.

There are terrible, tragic consequences to all this human error. A commuter train in New York, whose driver claimed to be in a daze, derails after taking a curve at 82 miles per hour in a 30 miles-per-hour zone, killing four people. A speeding teenager in a quiet San Francisco Bay Area suburb loses control and plows into a family on a street corner near where I used to live, killing a father and his nine-year-old daughter. There seems to be an epidemic of irresponsible bus drivers texting and crashing.

Cars kill around 32,000 people and injure 2.2 million in the United States every year. Isn’t it time to take human hands off the wheel?

Driverless cars coming down the pike

Google is trying to make it happen with its driverless car program. Google’s small fleet of driverless cars currently on public roads has a pretty good track record: collectively, 500,000 miles without crashing, whereas the average human drivers gets into an accident in the same amount of miles. Driverless cars are coming, as this new Spock vs. old Spock car commercial shows.

If self-driven cars can statistically prove to be safer than human-driven ones, then auto insurers just might play a role in bringing about this change.

”In the next five to seven years, we’ll have to pay more to drive our cars” due to the higher risk, predicts Guido Jouret, vice president and general manager of the “Internet of Things” at Cisco, speaking to a small crowd in San Francisco this week at Cisco’s technology predictions event.

Of course, there are many complex issues for self-driving cars to navigate before taking off, not the least of which comes from Detroit automakers. Let’s face it, Americans love their cars, love to work on them, and love to drive them, perhaps even as much as they love their guns. Cars are a big part of our self-reliant culture.

Google first announced its driverless car program in 2009, and two years later Chrysler ran a television commercial for one of the iconic American muscle cars, the Dodge Charger, during the Super Bowl with a voice-over narrator saying: “Hands-free driving. Cars that park themselves. An unmanned car driven by a search-engine company. We’ve seen that movie. It ends with robots harvesting our bodies for energy.”

Then again, other people are warming up to the idea of cars and trains being driven by robots.

During the BART strike this year, for instance, people were surprised to learn that train drivers didn’t actually do the driving except during emergencies—everything is automated. Many BART riders were outraged that union workers were demanding more money when they didn’t seem to be doing much work. Then they learned that a BART driver needs only a high school diploma, a valid California driver’s license and three years of experience “interacting with the general public in a variety of ways,” according to a job post description, to qualify for the job.

Would you want them doing the driving?

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