Already, Google has put specially outfitted self-driving Toyota Prius models through test drives that covered 140,000 miles in northern California. A driver was always on hand to take over during the test drives, and there was only one minor fender-bender during the pilot, and it was caused by human error. Autonomous driving could cut the number of accidents in half, says Sebastian Thrun, a Google engineer.
Of course, having one car drive you to work is one thing. In Masdar City, thousands of people ride in autonomous cabs that run on electric power and read markers on the road for navigation. There is no need for remote charging stations, because the cabs power up at a car terminal while waiting for people to load. There are now 10 taxis in operation, carrying about 25,000 passengers per month, according to 2GetThere, the company that developed the Masdar City robotaxis.
Robotaxis transport about 25,000 people per month in Masdar City. There are currently 10 vehicles in the fleet. Credit: 2GetThere.
There have been no reported accidents since the Masdar City taxis launched in December 2010, according to 2GetThere spokesman Robbert Lohmann, who says autonomous cars for public transit make sense in Masdar City because the road infrastructure is dedicated to the driverless cabs. "The chances of two vehicles coming into contact with each other are extremely remote," he says. "The predictable behavior of automated systems ensures that the random character of accidents as we experience them with manually driven vehicles, such as personal cars or trains, will be avoided."
What about on U.S. roads at highway speeds? Marcial Hernandez, a senior engineer at automaker Volkswagen, says the sensor technology needed for autonomous cars on highways is already available. Many cars can sense when another vehicle passes or automatically slow down to maintain a proper distance from the vehicle ahead of you on the highway (thanks to a technology called adaptive cruise control). A few models, like the Infiniti G, can nudge you back into a lane when your car gets too close to the shoulder.