Technology takes to the road

Technology is driving toward
a future of autonomous cars.

Imagine a day when you can get in a car and use it like an elevator: push a button or program the car to take you to your destination. The car would be reliable enough to drive itself, leaving you to relax and pass the time reading your email, texting a friend or even sleeping without fear of a crash.

That future may not be as far away as you think. Advancements in car safety that are already on the street are just the first of many that may lead to common use of autonomous – or safe-driving – cars, according to Dr. Alain Kornhauser, faculty chair of Princeton Autonomous Vehicle Engineering (PAVE) at Princeton University. He discussed “Safe-Driving Vehicles and Their Impact on Our Industry” at an April 2014 Ohio Insurance Education Day sponsored by the Ohio Insurance Institute. Over the past five decades, automakers have succeeded in reducing accident deaths and injuries by adding features such as seatbelts, front and side airbags, stability systems and antilock brakes. But those are all just crash mitigation features, Kornhauser told the 250 insurance agents and insurance company representatives at the Columbus, Ohio, meeting. While safety features reduce the severity of injuries when there is a crash, they haven’t necessarily reduced claim costs, partly because of dramatic increases in medical expenses. “Safety hasn’t been great at selling cars,” he said. And since it doesn’t sell, safety has been regulated as a public necessity. As long ago as the 1960s, engineers envisioned autonomous transportation systems, but most of them required massive investment in new infrastructure: rails, guideways, even magnetic levitation over specially treated pavement. Some of those early ideas became the people-movers commonly seen in major airports today. Instead, Kornhauser believes the key is to focus on individual vehicles that are able to drive without any:

  • outside help
  • behavior modification of the conventional roadway user
  • physical changes in existing roadways

The convenience factor and economics of the marketplace will determine acceptance for autonomous vehicles, he said, offering consumers enormous personal freedom and mobility.

In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued its latest policy on vehicle automation, defining five levels, 0-4, of autonomous car development. The industry is currently at level 2, which combines automation with constant driver vigilance. Some higher-end cars are already available with driver assistance packages, Kornhauser said, with active lane-keeping, blind spot detection, collision avoidance and autonomous emergency braking systems.

Eventually, costs will fall, and autonomous systems will be found in all cars, and public transit systems could find particular benefit. Kornhauser estimates that the cost of even level 2 technology installed on a bus could be recovered in as little as one year through reductions in casualty and liability claims.

More details about research into autonomous vehicles is available on PAVE’s blog.

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