Volvo, betting on connected car technologies, announced Oct. 6 that it has a vision: By 2020, no one will be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo.Two months earlier, Nissan set a similar goal, announcing plans to have a commercially viable vehicle with Autonomous Drive technology available by 2020. Furthermore, within two product generations of introducing the technology, it plans to extend it to its full product line.
"What we've done is fleshed out that the two key pillars of Nissan Motor Company are zero emissions and zero fatalities. Autonomous driving is really about that goal of zero fatalities," Andy Palmer, Nissan's executive vice president, told the press in August, making the 2020 announcement.
We humans, as we know, are a fallible lot, prone to distraction, poor judgment and regrettable decisions, often while manipulating 3 tons of steel on wheels at high speeds. There are 6 million car crashes in the United States each year (it's the number-one cause of death for people between the ages of 4 and 34) and human error is said to be to blame in 90 to 93 percent of cases. Slippery roads, by contrast, are blamed for 6 percent of crashes.
Helping drivers, then—if not completely eliminating their participation, in some instances—is thought to be an excellent way to keep more alive and safe, and it has become a key focus of the nascent but fast growing connected car market.
"If the car can be more intelligent than we are sometimes, the car could help us to be a better driver," said Catharina Elmsater-Svard, Sweden's Minister for Infrastructure, in a Volvo promotional video launched with the Oct. 6 announcement.
BMW, Ford, Toyota and Audi have also all shown off cars with autonomous systems—cars that require a driver to be behind the wheel, for back up and as an extra set of eyes, but that when told where to go can accelerate, steer, turn, brake, park and even be alert to surprises like a deer jumping into the road, or a jaywalker.
How the cars work varies somewhat, but they generally all rely on very detailed maps and either laser scanners or radar to create a constant, real-time blueprint of everything around the car. In all scenarios, it's very easy for the driver to take over, whether by putting his or her hands on the wheel or hitting a red button.
Google began looking into driverless cars several years ago, while downplaying its efforts to the public (not to mention its less-indulgent shareholders) as something of a hobby, or a lark. Its self-driving cars—part of its "moonshot factory"—have since driven more than half a million miles across a variety of terrains and road conditions and without a single accident. (One of its cars, though, was rear-ended at a stoplight by an actual driver. Here's another driving statistic: 10 percent of fatalities at intersections are caused by red-light violations.)
In September, the California State Legislature, with not a little nudging from Google, made its state the third to legalize driverless cars. Several more states are considering putting pro-driverless-car legislation on the books (it's not actually illegal anywhere, so much as not explicitly legal). Michigan is expected to join the list by year's end.
"I expect that self-driving cars are going to be far safer than human-driven cars," Google co-founder Sergey Brin told the press Sept. 24, as California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the new law. "Self-driving cars do not run red lights."
Google, which is not only developing the software but reportedly planning to build its own cars, has also said that driverless cars are safer since they never get tired or distracted or drunk.
Additionally, since the cars are supposedly less likely to crash, there's an opportunity for them to be lighter and therefore more fuel-efficient. Also, because machines are more precise and reliable drivers than humans, driverless cars could safely drive closer together, in slightly narrower lanes, increasing highway capacity "by a factor of 2 or 3 ... doing away with all traffic jams on highways," Sebastian Thrun, a Google engineer and director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, has said.
Even when a freeway is operating at maximum capacity, according to Google, only 10 percent of its surface is being used.