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Driverless Cars: Fantasy or Feasible?

Automakers and intrepid inventors have been experimenting with autonomous vehicles — aka driverless cars — for nearly 100 years. So far, they’ve only materialized in celluloid.

But what was once Hollywood fantasy is now an imminent reality. In recent years, major carmakers — BMW to Volvo to Toyota — and technology monoliths like Google have ramped up their driverless car research. They’re advancing driverless technology at least in part via new legislation allowing the testing of autonomous cars on public roads.

The new driverless technology — exemplified in prototypes by Audi and BMW at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) — is more streamlined. Sensors and computers that used to occupy the entire trunk are now appreciably more compact.

Google lobbied hard for legislation to permit the testing of autonomous cars. In 2012, the company achieved its goal. Nevada, Florida and California passed laws allowing the testing of driverless vehicles. Michigan followed suit last December. Like its counterparts, Michigan’s new law requires a human in the driver’s seat while the vehicle is in operation.

Driverless transportation for the general public is likely still years away — seven to 10, according to some advocates. But government agencies and transportation experts are already considering the ramifications.

"We’re encouraged by the new automated vehicle technologies being developed and implemented today, but want to ensure that motor vehicle safety is considered in the development of these advances," said David Strickland, the top safety official at the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). "As additional states consider similar legislation, our recommendations provide lawmakers with the tools they need to encourage the safe development and implementation of automated vehicle technology."

In addition to defining categories of autonomous vehicles, the NHTSA has identified the potential benefits and hazards of driverless cars. 

Potential advantages include fewer traffic collisions, increased road capacity, reduced traffic congestion, less road signage and greater opportunity for drivers with handicaps. 

Cybersecurity, software reliability, liability responsibilities, loss of drivers’ jobs in various sectors, increased government regulations and legal ramifications are among potential pitfalls identified by the NHTSA.

Obstacles aside, these developments appeal to a collective imagination shaped by science fiction and James Bond films. Excitement is a natural response. But officials urge consumers to remember the most important feature of any vehicle: safety.

“Our research covers all levels of automation, including advances like automatic braking that may save lives in the near term,” said Ray LaHood, the former NHTSA secretary. “Whether we’re talking about automated features in cars today or fully automated vehicles of the future, our top priority is to ensure these vehicles — and their occupants — are safe.”