I think the problem people have imagining a world of self-driving cars is they imagine it happening overnight. Yes, if a self-driving car showed up at your house tomorrow it would be a little nerve-racking to turn over control to a computer. But the progress will be relatively incremental, and we will give up control one piece at a time. In fact, this is already underway.

As far as I can tell, the first such feature to make it onto the market was the self-parking system. These systems automate the steering of parallel parking and provide the driver with distance alerts, but the driver still controls the speed. Watching this technology demonstrated it is very easy to imagine the entire process being autonomous.

There are other examples as well, like adaptive cruise control which adjusts a cars speed to the vehicle in front of it, even bringing the car to a full stop if necessary. This technology is already on the market. Cadillac’s  “Super Cruise” seems like an extension of that which bridges the gap between autonomous driving and adaptive cruise, but is designed to only work highways. With “Super Cruise” the car stays in the lane and at the speed the driver sets, while staying at least two seconds away from the car in front. This isn’t available yet, but it seems a likely precursor to fully autonomous cars and a natural extension from adaptive cruising.

Automatic braking systems are a similar technology that is more focused on preventing accidents. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that automatic braking in Volvo SUV’s prevented one out of four low-speed crashes. Other technologies like this have tremendous potential to save lives. USA Today reports:

“Along with automatic brakes, IIHS is studying the effectiveness of other advanced safety features such as warnings that alert drivers they are leaving their lanes and indicate another car is in the car’s blind spot, as well as adaptive headlights that turn as cars move around corners. NHTSA, in cooperation with automakers, is also studying automatic brakes — which go by different names, including “forward collision warning/mitigation” or “pre-sense” — and advanced safety belts designed to work with the brakes.

IIHS estimated last year that these crash-avoidance features have the potential to prevent or at least lessen the impact in 1.9 million crashes a year and help prevent one out of three fatal crashes. Systems that warn then help prevent frontal crashes by braking automatically could be the solution for most of those — 1.2 million crashes. That represents 20% of the 5.8 million police-reported crashes each year and as many as 66,000 non-fatal injury crashes and 879 fatalities a year, IIHS says.”

Auto executives are quick to ensure people that people and not robots remain in control of vehicles, but as these technologies become more widespread we will begin trusting computers more than ourselves. I suspect their cautionary rhetoric will change as people become more comfortable with computers in charge, and soon enough we’ll be able to be asleep at the wheel, and safely.

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