The idea of speeding down a highway without having your foot on the gas pedal seemed novel at one time. Today, however, cruise control is a common feature on many vehicles. Fully self-driving cars still seem hard to conceive for many people. But millions of SDCs may be on the roads within a few decades, automakers predict.

According to a recent article in USA Today, a new study predicts the sale of self-driving cars will skyrocket from an estimated 230,000 vehicles sold annually in 2025 to almost 12 million sales a year by 2035. It is expected that a third of all SDC sales will occur here in the United States and throughout North America. By the year 2035, there could be as many as 54 million self-driving cars on the road.

While driverless cars are not yet in dealer showrooms, auto manufacturers are continuing to make major technological advances toward developing a fully autonomous car. Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW are just a few of the automakers that highlighted autonomous driving technologies at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Mercedes-Benz unveiled a fully autonomous prototype vehicle. Audi also drew a lot of attention after its piloted driving concept car drove a couple of journalists and car experts all the way from San Francisco to Las Vegas, about 550 miles in total.

Reports indicate that many of the auto manufacturers who are developing self-driving technologies are hoping to start introducing some autonomous features to the next generation of vehicles.

How Autonomous Driving Technologies Are Intended to Make Roads Safer

There are many questions about whether self-driving cars will pose new and unexpected risks in the future, or will reduce the numbers of car accidents, injuries and deaths in the United States.

Car accidents and traffic fatalities have been trending downward for more than a decade, with improved structural design and safety features driving the decline, according to researchers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The question is, will driverless cars take bad drivers off the road and further reduce car accidents? IHS Automotive consultants say, “As more cars hit the road, the roads will be safer.”

Many self-driving vehicles will likely use a combination of radar sensors, laser scanners, as well as various cameras mounted on the vehicle to help it navigate. Other autonomous driving features (some of which may already be available in existing vehicles, include:

  • Automatic braking systems or emergency brake assist
  • Blind-spot detection and collision warning systems
  • Lane departure warning systems
  • Rear-view cameras
  • Voice-activated, handsfree systems
  • Active cornering headlight systems
  • Vehicle-tovehicle communication

What these features are intended to do is to make our roads safer. Eliminating the decision making or thought process of the driver by taking the driver almost entirely out of the equation is expected to significantly reduce the number of car accident injuries and fatalities. Other benefits may include decreased traffic congestion, increased capacity on highways and road, lower fuel consumption, as well as improved mobility for the elderly and disabled.

As we all know, drivers can easily become distracted. Many of us engage in activities in our vehicles that lead us to take our attention off the road, hands off the wheel, or mind off the task of driving. That doesn’t happen when your vehicle is driving YOU. A SDC won’t get distracted. Its technology is supposed to allow it to make adjustments quickly, so as to avoid collisions when a driver’s slow reaction time or bad driving habits may have led to a collision.

Obstacles Auto Makers Have Yet to Overcome

Despite all of these benefits in self-driving or autonomous cars, there are still a number of obstacles automakers need to overcome before these types of vehicles will truly be adopted. The software used in the vehicles must be reliable. The size and cost of the sensors powered by lasers in SDCs must be reduced significantly before such cars can be put in mass production, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Consumer acceptance is another obstacle. Vehicles owners are unlikely to put their trust in the technology if there is any chance the technology could fail, thus putting the driver and passengers at risk. Self-driving technologies may be gradually introduced into vehicles to gain acceptance.

In February 2014, vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V) systems that allow cars to talk to each other received federal approval. V2V communication uses a short range radio network that allows cars to detect other cars in the vicinity and take measures to avoid them. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that V2V communications will be able to prevent 76 percent of accidents on the roads.

Data from the IHS already indicate a reduction in property damage liability and collision claims for vehicles equipped with forward collision warning systems, which have been available in some models since the year 2000.

Autonomous cars are likely to be a reality in the next few decades, but drivers are likely to see the introduction of a progression of self-driving features that make cars safer.

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