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Page last updated at 01:37 GMT, Monday, 1 October 2012 02:37 UK

Will driverless cars mean computer crashes?


Will self-driving cars become a reality?

By Alex Hudson
BBC News

Google co-founder Sergey Brin believes that "self-driving cars will be far safer than human-driven cars" but who trusts them enough to drive in them or even alongside them?

Drivers will not need a driving licence by 2040.

At least that is what the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers believes. It thinks autonomous cars capable of driving to any destination are set to become the norm.

London Underground Tube train

Full scale trials of semi-automated transport on the London Underground system began in the early 1960s

It has still yet to be implemented across the entire network

Plans were raised by the government in 2010 to begin a driverless experiment across the system

The RMT Union, which represents Tube workers, said: "That just proves that they have no understanding of the tube system and a complete and utter disregard for passenger safety"

With an estimated 90% of current car accidents thought to be caused by human error, taking people out of the equation is seen by many car companies as a massive boost to safety.

But most qualified drivers do not seem to think they would be the ones in trouble.

"Most drivers think they are better than average drivers," says psychologist Dr Graham Hole, of the University of Sussex, who has published work on the psychology of driving.

"People typically have a very inflated view of their own abilities as far as driving is concerned."

A large number of companies are investing in autonomous driving technology.

General Motors, Volkswagen, Google, Volvo, BMW, Audi, Mercedes and many more are all in vehicle autonomy trial stages to a level not seen before.

But who is a better driver - man or machine?

And if there is a clear winner, how are drivers - or technical experts - convinced of the findings?

In the US in 2010 - 32,885 people died in motor vehicle crashes - the lowest number on record for more than 20 years.

This is the equivalent of 1.11 fatalities for every 100 million miles travelled on US roads, according to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

It will take Google 300 million miles of driving without fatal incident - Bryant Walker Smith, of Stanford Law School, believes - to prove that autonomous cars are significantly safer.

But even if these figures are proved to be true, we will still take some convincing before we hand over control to a computer. Psychologists believe people are more scared of things not under their direct control, pointing towards the fear of flying, nuclear power and even food preservatives.

'Crash dummy'

Volvo, current manufacturer of the safest car tested in Europe, is currently involved in the autonomous project Sartre, testing a "road train" where, on motorways, cars are linked to a head driver and then can relax, read the newspaper or, as Click found out, play a musical instrument.

The car is only 6m behind the one in front, around 0.25 seconds at the speed tested.

I'm not interested in [being] a crash dummy because Google thinks it's a cool idea
Bill Synder, journalist

"Six metres apart when you have to control the car yourself would be uncomfortable," says Eric Chan, chief engineer of Ricardo, the UK company leading the Sartre project.

"You can barely see the lane markings, you can't really see any stretch of road between you and the car in front."

For the current driver, questions have been raised about how comfortable the person in the driving seat would be when they are not doing the driving.

Even some psychologists are worried about the absolute security of having a computer in control.

"The reality of the situation is that driving environments are very complex and they involve all kinds of decisions to be made - from strategic levels to the operational level of collision avoidance," says Dr Hole.

"Human beings have their faults but are extremely good information processors, much better than any machine at hazard protection."

Now the term "computer crash" is being coined to describe what could happen.

"I'm not interested in [being] a crash dummy because Google thinks it's a cool idea," writes technology journalist Bill Snyder.

The engineering and motor companies are hoping that this is just a matter of time before people warm to the idea.

And projects are keen to point out the number of ways safety is upheld even when a technical failure occurs. For the Sartre project, the system monitors itself and if something even looks like it could happen, distances between cars are lengthened and drivers are warned that they are about to take control.

If anything continues then cars are moved to the hard shoulder and stopped. And Sartre says that it is only one of the ways that a problem like this could be dealt with.

"It's clear that people will have to get used to this new technology," says Chan.

California Gov. Edmund G Brown Jr., front left, rides in a driverless car to a bill signing at Google headquarters in Mountain View
Anyone who gets inside a car and finds out the car is driving will be a little skittish. But they'll get over it
Jerry Brown, California State Governor

"It changes in a fundamental way your personal relationship with your car. When seat belts were introduced, when airbags were introduced, cruise control, there were a lot of people who were nervous about it.

"Over time, people have got used to them and realised the safety benefits."

Cars on the roads can already park themselves, brake automatically and alert a driver if they are slipping out of a lane.

So it could just be that these things take a little time.

"The first time I drove a car with cruise control, I didn't like it much because the car did its own thing," says Chan.

"After a short time, I now use it very often when on motorways. I've got used to trusting it."

Even the current interest is significant.

Without driving one, 37% of drivers aged 18 to 37 would definitely or probably buy a vehicle capable of fully autonomous driving, according to a JD Power research survey.

But even beyond the safety concerns, those who love driving are not prepared to start removing their hands from the steering wheel.

"People are less likely to give up control because you just have to look at the market," says Peter Rodger, head of driving standards at the Institute of Advanced Motorists.

"There are 70, 80, 90 car magazines on shop shelves bought by people who like their cars. They actually like the feeling. There is an emotional attachment that comes with controlling a machine."

And despite Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt's hope that "self-driving cars should become the predominant mode of transportation in our lifetime", it could be that even a small risk could be too much for some people to be comfortable removing the driver completely.

What would happen if the technology fails and no person in the car knows how to drive?

"Society will find that very difficult," says Rodger. "We are increasingly a blame culture. When something goes wrong, we look for someone to pin it on.

"Without accountability, drivers are going to find that harder still."

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