Beware, Driverless Cars Are Everywhere!

If you drove to work this morning, chances are you shared the road with countless driverless cars. Not the ones developed by Google and several automakers, which are getting a lot of press these days, but ordinary cars like yours, with people sitting in the driver’s seat, except they weren’t really driving, at least not all the time. They were texting, checking email, searching for a song on the radio, eating a bagel, applying makeup, lost in thought about last night…

Maybe you drove to work this morning in a driverless car.

This alternative definition of “driverless car” was brought to my attention by one of our readers who posted an insightful comment in response to my blog posting about drones. Here’s an excerpt from his comment:

But seriously, folks, we already seem to have driverless vehicles. At least that has been our experience this week in particular. The RV driven by Methuselah’s brother that wandered all over his lane in the high wind here in Arizona today.

Or the teenaged girls that missed their exit in Massachusetts and zipped across in front of us from the left lane, so close I could read the name of the magazine in their back window ledge. You get what I mean.

Over the past few years, the U.S. Department of Transportation has raised awareness about distracted driving via its website and other mediums. According to the site, there are three main types of distraction: manual (taking your hands off the wheel), visual (taking your eyes off the road), and cognitive (taking your mind off driving). Here are some sobering facts and statistics from the DOT:

  • In 2011, 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver, compared to 3,267 in 2010. An additional, 387,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver, compared to 416,000 injured in 2010.
  • 18% of injury crashes in 2010 were reported as distraction-affected crashes.
  • 11% of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted.
  • Sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent – at 55 mph – of driving the length of an entire football field, blind.

Simply put, while the driverless cars Google and others are bringing to market have the potential to transform transportation as we know it, the “driverless cars” currently on the road today have the potential to kill or injure you.

Fortunately, automakers are starting to embed technologies from tomorrow’s driverless cars into today’s vehicles. For example, check out this collision warning and emergency brake system Volvo Trucks introduced last year. The system, using lasers and sensors, detects when a collision is likely to occur and it alerts the driver with visual and audible alarms. If the driver fails to take action, the system will apply the brakes, first gently and then hard. It’s amazing to see how quickly the truck comes to a full stop, even while carrying a 40-ton load.

Until these systems become standard features in all cars and trucks, we’ll just have to keep our hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, and mind on driving because you never know when one of those “driverless cars” next to you will suddenly veer into your lane or slam on the brakes in front of you.