Imagine being able to hop into your car and drive down the street without having to worry about braking for an intersection, changing lanes, or making a right- or left-hand turn at the nearest street corner.

That may sound impossible, but several years ago, companies like Google actually began developing prototypical vehicles that can make those very decisions for drivers. These prototypes, called “self-driven” or “driverless” cars, can literally drive themselves, with only minimal assistance from their human drivers.

How Do Driverless Cars Work?

Driverless cars use automated technology, like computer artificial intelligence, cameras, lasers, and GPS devices, to help them sense their environments, react to changes, and adjust to speed limits with very little assistance from their drivers.

“We have moved to cars that have millions of lines of code and advanced systems that will think about where you want to go and will change the brakes and steering to allow you to actually get there,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a legal fellow at Stanford University, in an interview with Yale Environment 360.

Vehicles on the road today already use similar driver-assist technology to achieve safe driving conditions. For instance, some current models of cars can sense when a car drifts out of a lane, and automatically correct the steering back to the center. Adaptive cruise control and self-parallel-parking vehicles are also becoming more common.

Nissan Sets Goal to Sell Driverless Cars by 2020

So far, the concept of the driverless car has been limited to vehicle prototypes and extensive on-the-road testing, but that could change soon. Nissan Motor Company recently announced that they could develop and begin selling a driverless car as early as 2020.

“We will be able to bring multiple, affordable fully autonomous vehicles to the market by 2020,” Executive Vice President – Nissan Motor Co. Andy Palmer told reporters at an Irvine, CA press briefing.

Nissan’s recent prediction could be a fairly accurate projection. After all, back in 2010, Google revealed that it had developed and driven a fleet of self-driving cars over 140,000 miles. As of March this year that distance has more than tripled with Google reporting that they have logged over 500,000 miles of autonomous driving.

Audi, BMW, and General Motors have also predicted that they should be able to sell driverless (or almost-driverless) cars by the end of the decade and an even more impressive list of automakers have been working on developing the technology. These major automakers include Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, Toyota (Lexus), Volvo, and Volkswagen.

Driverless cars can offer two major benefits to the general public: increased safety on the roadways and reduced fuel consumption.

Increased Safety

While driverless cars are primarily controlled through automated systems, they do have the capability to “switch” back to manual, driver-controlled power. This means if the vehicle is unsure of how to interpret its environment, it will alert the driver. The driver will then be able to take back control over his or her vehicle, bringing it safely to its destination.

As Jerome M. Lutin, Ph.D., P.E., AICP; Alain L. Komhauser, Ph.D; and Eva Lemer-Lam, M.ASCE assert in a paper published in July 2013 in the ITE Journal, “self-driving cars have the potential to eliminate virtually all driver error and most auto crashes.”

This is particularly significant, since driver error has recently been responsible for the majority of driving crashes, according to the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey Report to Congress, a nationally representative survey sample of 5,471 crashes from the period of 2005—2007. The survey revealed that 85 percent of all crashes were directly attributed to driver error.

Reduced Fuel Consumption

Driverless cars can also offer an important environmental benefit: they can cut fuel consumption and emissions by significant amounts. According to a report by KPMG, driverless cars could cut fuel consumption by up to 20 percent for highway driving, for example.

They also offer a significant opportunity for the electric vehicle industry, according to Nikki Gordon at Plug-In Cars. “With sophisticated enough software, a self-driving car could be even more efficient than it is with a human at the wheel, improving range and eliminating range anxiety.”

“Self-driving technology and electric cars go hand in hand,” she concluded.

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