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Don’t look for a self-driving car just yet!

2/20/2013 9:30:00 AM

The news earlier this month that Google expects to release the technology for self-driving cars sometime within the next five years sent ripples of excitement through both the tech community and the automotive industry.

The fact that Google has been testing self-driving cars for years is no secret. In fact, Google’s self-driving cars have become something of a familiar sight around its Mountain View, CA headquarters, as well as at other testing sites in Nevada and Florida. It’s also well-known that Google and third-party observers have been more than encouraged by the performance of the self-driving cars and their potential for increased highway safety.

The idea that self-driving cars might actually improve road safety may seem paradoxical but that’s one of the ultimate goals. About 33,000 people die annually in traffic accidents across the U.S. and the overwhelming majority of those fatalities are due to human error. Eliminating driver mistakes, whether running a red light or going too fast for the current road conditions, is clearly an area where Google thinks it can make a difference.

However, despite the huge strides that the Google program has made in recent years, don’t expect to see self-driving cars in showrooms anytime soon. Self-driving cars face huge legal and regulatory battles before they are allowed on the nation’s roads. The insurance issues alone would likely have state regulators throwing up their hands – and liability lawyers licking their lips in anticipation.

But like the flying vehicles of 1950’s sci-fi magazines, the idea of self-driving cars remains a tantalizing concept. Some of the relevant technology has already found its way into everyday automobiles with lane-change warning systems and assisted parking features. And it’s not too far-fetched to imagine a self-driving car cruising down a highway at night while its passengers sleep soundly inside, ready to be woken when the car reaches its destination.

Like most great ideas, the determining factor on the commercial viability of self-driving cars will be cost. Google’s test cars are estimated to have as much as $150,000 worth of equipment on board, including laser sensors and other mapping technology. No-one seriously doubts that self-driving cars will eventually make it onto our roadways but, like private planes and helicopters, they will likely remain the toys of the rich and famous for many years to come. For the rest of us, witnessing another incredible leap forward in consumer technology will have to be enough!

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