Thursday, 20 June 2013 14:41

We Asked Google: Will Self-Driving Cars Be Accident-Free?

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Years from now, we’ll be telling our grandchildren that back in the day we actually had to drive our own cars, navigating through commute traffic and fighting off road rage. Old cars driven by actual humans will sit in automobile museums and things like steering wheels and brake pedals will eventually be obsolete. No longer will men be able to claim they’re better drivers than women. Is this something out of a science fiction movie? Well, not anymore. After almost four decades developing self-driving vehicles and currently led by Google, Toyota and Audi, driverless cars have gone from fiction to reality and many believe they will eventually be the norm.

Recently, U.S. auto safety regulators laid out plans to study the safety risks and benefits associated with self-driving cars. A study by J.D. Power and Associates in late April illustrated that consumers are warming to the idea of self-driving cars, but still want features such as automatic park assistance or emergency braking on a fully autonomous car. In addition, these same regulators strongly recommend that anyone operating a driverless car should have a special license and appropriate training.


Most everyone in the know has expressed a cautious “let’s wait and see” attitude about these new vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that they “do not recommend at this time that states should permit operation of self-driving cars for purposes other than testing.”

The testing of these cars has been thorough and intense, according to Google. Their widely-publicized self-driving project team maintains a fleet of 10 vehicles, consisting of six Toyota Prius, an Audi TT, and three Lexus RX450h, each accompanied in the driver’s seat by one of a dozen drivers with perfect driving records and in the passenger seat by one of Google’s engineers.

San Francisco is an ideal testing course for any driver or vehicle and one of the first things the Google fleet did was tackle the City by the Bay’s Lombard Street as well as crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, traveling along the Pacific Coast Highway and circling Lake Tahoe. The cars are designed to drive at the speed limit in each area, stored on its maps and maintaining its distance from other vehicles, by utilizing its system of sensors. The system provides an override that allows a human driver to take control of the car by stepping on the brake or turning the wheel, just like a cruise control system in many of today’s cars.

Last year in March, Google posted a YouTube video showing a Morgan Hill, CA, resident, Steve Mahan, being taken on a ride in its self-driving Toyota Prius. In the video, Mahan said, “Ninety-five percent of my vision is gone, so I’m well past legally blind.”

In August 2012, the Google team announced that they had completed over 300,000 autonomous-driving miles accident-free and were ready to start testing its fleet with single drivers instead of in pairs. Three U.S. states have passed laws permitting driverless cars as of September 2012: Nevada, Florida and California.

While Google has no immediate plans to commercially develop their autonomous vehicle technology, the company hopes to develop a business division to market the system and deliver the data behind it to automobile manufacturers, according to veteran automotive journalist Michael Coates, the editor of www.cleanfleetreport.com.

“Google isn’t really in the automotive business,” Coates said. “But they’re in the technology business, so it makes sense for a lot of reasons. Their real plan is to develop the technology further and find out a way to leverage it. I wouldn’t be surprised if all autonomous cars in the future will be made by the world’s leading carmakers, but each containing some aspect of Google’s technology.”

So, no one really knows when autonomous cars will be prevalent on our streets and highways and with every form of new technology numerous questions also arise, especially within the collision industry. By taking the human element out of the mix, will self-driving vehicles be safer to operate? Will the collision industry be negatively impacted due to fewer accidents and eventually even become obsolete? Will these vehicles be affordable for John and Judy Doe and what will they cost? And how will this fleet of self-driving cars most directly affect the daily lives of people in the U.S. and worldwide?

After inquiring for several months about the possibility of seeing or actually being a passenger in one of Google’s self-driving cars, I received a response and the answer was a polite and succinct “No.” I was told: “You can ask us whatever you want and we’ll send you multiple photos of the car, but at this point we’re not making it available to the media.”

A spokesperson from Google laid out the big picture for its new cars and outlined the benefits associated with them for Autobody News recently.

“Our main goal with self-driving cars is to transform mobility—to improve people’s lives by making driving safer, more enjoyable and more efficient. Over 1.2 million people are killed in traffic accidents worldwide every year, and we think self-driving technology can help significantly reduce that number. Self-driving cars never get sleepy or distracted, and their ability to make driving decisions 20 times per second helps them run smartly. Already there are indications that a self-driving car can operate more safely than an average driver.

“At heart, driving is an information problem. We’ve been teaching our self-driving cars to intelligently deal with all the signals and information that we normally process every day,” Google’s spokesperson said. “We’ve successfully driven over half a million miles in self-driving mode across a wide variety of terrain and road conditions, and we’re very pleased with the performance. We haven’t determined exactly how we will get the technology into people’s hands, but we’re continuing to develop and refine the technology, particularly the reliability.”

ABN asked the #1 question any body shop would want to know—do these cars get into accidents and how?    

“Our technology has never caused an accident,” a Google spokesperson said. “We did get rear-ended once at a traffic light while the computer control was off, and another time, one of our drivers caused a minor fender bender while manually driving the car. Neither of these cases involved injuries. It is a primary goal of the project to prevent incidents like these? Of course.”

For body shop owners who covet the latest technology the next question is—are Google self-driving vehicles affordable at this time? Not unless you’re Donald Trump or someone super rich like Taylor Swift.

Currently, Google’s driverless test cars contain $150,000 in onboard equipment, including a $70,000 LIDAR (laser radar) system and a Velodyne 64-beam laser range finder mounted on the vehicle’s roof. Once they hit the market and are produced in larger numbers, experts believe these vehicles will sell for between $80,000 to $100,000 and more. So, get your car counts up, body shop owners and make some money if you want to be one of the early adopters in this brave new world of self-driving cars!


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