In my part of the world the police have declared this week to be Distracted Driving Week because last year more people were killed in highway car accidents involving distracted drivers than in accidents involving alcohol. That’s really saying something.
Distracted driving can include drinking a coffee or talking to a passenger, but most often we think about cell phone calls, tinkering with a GPS, applying makeup, and especially texting.
Really, with Facebook Home on our phones to alert us whenever a friend sneezes, and Twitter to make sure we don’t miss a single Kim Kardashian labour pain, how can we be expected to pay attention to something as trivial as what lies ahead of us on the road? This whole ‘controlling a speeding car’ thing is seriously cramping our style when it comes to what we actually want to be doing.
The answer? Robotic cars, of course. They’ve been a dream of science fiction writers almost since the genre began.
Since 2006 when the Lexus LS arrived in North America we’ve had cars that will park themselves. Now you can get different versions of that feature even on cars as low-priced as the Ford Focus. Mostly they use ultrasonic sensors to determine the measure of the parking space and guide the car into it.
But why have a driver at all? There are cars that can drive themselves. There have been for a while. In 2010 an Italian company named VisLab sent a convoy of vehicles more than eight thousand miles from Italy to China and several of them were unmanned the whole way. Mind you, the ones that did it with no human intervention were following the track of a vehicle just ahead of them that did have humans tweaking the course from time to time. But the technology has improved by leaps and bounds since then. With arrays of laser and radar sensors and other navigation systems that would put many fighter jets to shame, autonomous cars are proving their stuff. And more and more of their systems are making their way into commercial cars: gadgets that will warn you if you steer out of your lane (and steer you back), warn you of a potential front collision, and even hit the brakes for you in an emergency. The robotic cars that gets the most attention are the self-driving cars from Google. They’re already legally allowed on roads for testing purposes in Nevada, Florida, and California.
Experts at the Society of Automotive Engineers 2013 World Congress recently predicted that fully driverless cars won’t be commercially available before 2025, but I think they’re being pessimistic. Whenever that day arrives, it should spell the end of distracted driving, shouldn’t it?
Just please, nobody teach the robots how to tweet!