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Google’s Christopher Urmson believes driverless cars will saves lives by reducing traffic deaths.
Google’s Christopher Urmson believes driverless cars will saves lives by reducing traffic deaths.

Full Throttle

Beware the self-driving hype machine Add to ...

Here’s a preview of the corporate spin that will help sell driverless cars: your insurance will go down. In fact, insurance.com recently asked 2,000 drivers if they’d consider a self-driving car and 86 per cent said yes, if rates declined.

Safer cars will be involved in few crashes or none at all, so they’ll be cheap to insure, correct? Except cars have never been safer and insurance has never been more expensive. I am not waiting for that fat rate reduction for my robo-car.

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Meantime, the auto industry and others, including Google, have started pumping the tires of this technology. For instance, we’re told full or partially autonomous cars will take the drudgery out of stop-and-go driving. Instead of driving, you’ll be able to do your nails or read a book while your car crawls through a traffic-clogged megacity.

Or this from Google’s Christopher Urmson, who says the vast majority of traffic deaths are caused by human error: Give computers the wheel and the self-driving car will join seat belts, anti-lock braking and electronic stability control as important life-savers.

Aging and increasingly infirm baby boomers will embrace the technology, we’re told, when no longer capable of holding a driver’s licence themselves. Your next cross-country road trip? You won’t spend it making endlessly tiresome adjustments to the wheel. No, you’ll do a crossword puzzle or keep your mind sharp with sudoku games.

IHS, the forecasting firm, in its recent report – “Emerging Technologies: Autonomous Cars – Not If, But When” – cited these and more on a list of benefits that self-driving cars offer society. Not surprisingly, co-author Egil Juliussen told Automotive News that self-driving cars (SDCs) will have a crash rate of near zero.

The only problem is that nearly a billion non-SDCs on the road today will keep hitting SDCs for decades to come. Still, by 2035 we can expect to see annual sales of self-driving cars top 11.8 million; by 2050, governments might not allow human drivers at all. So eventually the accident rate will decline.

At least computer-controlled cars will more efficiently handle clogged roads, boosting productivity and reducing infrastructure costs. With computers making the driving decisions, roadways won’t need extra-wide lanes, guard rails, rumble strips, wide shoulders or even stop signs, said Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, in testimony to the U.S. Congress. Billions saved.

Auto industry types are telling us that the magic of autonomous cars is just up ahead and in sight. Mercedes-Benz and Nissan say they will have production-ready driverless or autonomous cars by 2020. Mercedes-Benz, in fact, touts Intelligent Drive on the newest S-Class as a collection of integrated sensors, controls and various technologies that can take over the driving in congested, low-speed traffic – accelerating, steering and braking.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, BMW, Audi, Ford and others lined up a fleet of driverless cars that seemed almost showroom-ready. BMW is far enough along to plan a test of its technology next year in a 500-kilometre trek from Germany over the Alps to Italy.

Through all this, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has been a voice of reason. He has aggressively drawn a distinction between the autonomous technology we’ll probably see in the Leaf electric vehicle no later than 2020 and full self-driving technology that is the over-hyped vision of others.

Autonomous tech takes over the driving in lower-speed environments, with the driver always the flick of a switch away from resuming control. It’s different from self-driving cars that remove the driver from the equation. Self-driving cars therefore face a “regulatory minefield,” Ghosn told reporters in Japan, adding the technology is “suitable only for tightly controlled road environments at slow speeds.”

He was honest, too, about costs some say will amount to as much as a $10,000 premium. Given what we’ve seen from insurance companies, insurance rates for self-driving cars will also surely be pricey – and certain to rise when one has its first system failure.

Yes, be wary of the hype.

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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