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When Will We Be There?
The Progress of Driverless Cars

When Will We Be There?

As defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are five different levels for autonomous vehicles starting with cars that can do simple tasks on their own such as braking, to those that have no steering wheels or human-operated controls.

The first on-road autonomous shuttle in Colorado was just put into service by Denver's Regional Transportation District. It will run a route that will take 15 minutes at speeds averaging 12 to 15 miles per hour. An RTD employee will be on board to help ensure the safety of the passengers, which can number 12, and oversee operations.

With this launch, another in a seemingly slow rollout of autonomous vehicles, the question of when driverless travel will become the norm continues to be assessed. Just six months ago, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety evaluated current conditions and sounded a note of caution to obtaining "full driving autonomy."

But automakers, for good reasons of course, push ahead with their developments. In the Northwest Indiana Times, Bob Moulesong reported that General Motors showed off what they called the first production-ready vehicle without a steering wheel or pedals in 2017. They recently partnered with Honda Motor Company with the goal of mass production of autonomous vehicles.

The Ford Motor Company has pegged late 2021 for commercial operation of their fully autonomous car - a Level 4 capable vehicle, which according to the Department of Transportation is "designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for the entire trip."

Writing for TheStreet, Anton Wahlman noted Elon Musk's calculation that Tesla is about 98 percent of the way to extreme reliability in Level 4, possibly Level 5 (no steering wheel or general controls for human use) autonomous vehicle operation. Musk acknowledged that the goal is more like 99.999 percent, and Wahlman opined that the distance between those numbers will take a while to bridge.

At 98 percent accuracy, "In 100 seconds of driving, you will crash and possibly die, twice," he reasons, and getting to Musk's goal "will likely take at least 20 to 30 years to accomplish."

True that currently, cars with semi-autonomous features are everywhere - helping drivers stay in their lanes, avoid rear-end collisions, prevent them from opening their doors when oncoming traffic is too close, and more. And the road that the development of driverless cars is on has been compared by tech gurus as similar to the rapid travel of cell phone technology - implying that almost everyone will be taking advantage of autonomous driving, and loving it to the point of not being able to live without it, before we know it. But obviously, so much more is at stake here than with the development and acceptance of cell phone technology; the most critical of which is human life.

And there are many other considerations that society's embrace of cell phones did not have to face. For instance, how big of a "landline culture" was there ever? As advanced models were introduced, did early adopters of car phones and shoe-box sized "mobile" phones give those up with guarded unease, afraid that technology might be moving dangerously too fast? And then there are the cumbersome issues posed by the involvement of the auto insurance industry, and all other entrenched, third-party participants in the vehicular transportation-sphere - how and how fast will they adapt and evolve?

So though the question of when will we be drivers no more is a hard one to answer, all members of a profession that will be much impacted by that seeming inevitability are obligated to follow the progress closely, and take the lead where possible, or even necessary.

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October 17, 2019, 9:34 pm PDT

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