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Are driverless cars trustworthy?

Driverless cars are now legal on the road in California and although they are not yet on the market, the technology has influenced models that California drivers are currently using. For example, the automatic breaking technology that allows a driverless car to stop without instruction is also available on some models of cars today as an add-on safety feature to secure against an accident when a driver is unable to apply the brakes in time.

Computer sensors are able to detect hazards and react to them slightly faster than humans can, which can make a big difference when a vehicle is traveling at a high rate of speed. For example, at 40 miles-per-hour, a human driver is able to stop within 12 feet from the time that they notice the obstacle. A computer system that definitely will see the obstacle can stop within 9 feet.

While it might seem like a no-brainer to use technology to stop faster and prevent crashes, experts in the field say the public still has a long way to go before we can become truly comfortable with driverless cars. At present, there have been no accidents on record involving a self-driving car while the computer was in control. This will likely be true while the number of cars on the road are still limited and being used only as part of a testing process by manufacturers.

As the cars become more ubiquitous and available to consumers, there will inevitably be a crash and potentially an injury or a wrongful death. At that point, experts say, we may not be so willing to trust the computer when it seems like the program was at fault.

"We accept humans to be fault, but we don't accept machines killing human beings," said an industry advocate.

What do you think - would the overall increase in safety be offset by an accident where a driverless car injures or kills a person? Or will a long-term record that shows these vehicles are safer than human drivers allow us to keep the faith?


Source: US News & World Report, "Experts: Accident Would Shut Down Google's Driverless Car Experiment," Jason Koebler, May 8, 2013. 

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