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Google’s Driverless Car May Herald Historic Shift in Auto Safety

The driverless car being developed by Google may be the most important innovation in vehicle safety since safety belts. If Google meets its goals for reduction in traffic accidents, then millions of people could be saved from injury or death and billions of dollars could be saved.

Google’s driverless car technology uses sensors and cameras to detect the physical form of the road, read signs and watch for vehicles and pedestrians. The car uses the data to adjust speed and steering and apply the brakes.

Sebastian Thrun, Google’s lead developer of its driverless car technology, has made the claim that the system will one day be able to reduce traffic accidents by 90 percent. In 2009, there were approximately 5.5 million car accidents in the United States, with 9.5 million vehicles involved. There were 33,808 traffic deaths and 2.2 million people were injured, with 240,000 requiring hospitalization.

The financial cost of traffic accidents is enormous as well. The American Automobile Association (AAA) studied data from automobile crashes in the 99 largest urban areas in the country and arrived at a cost estimate of $299.5 billion. Extrapolating from AAA’s figures, it is estimated that the nationwide cost is about $450 billion. This includes damage to property, productivity loss, medical costs, and lowered quality of life.

Google’s bold claim is that its technology can save nearly 30,000 lives per year in the United States, prevent almost 2 million injuries and reduce costs from traffic accidents by $400 billion per year. The claim may seem extravagant, but it is based in the simple reality that nearly all traffic accidents are caused by human error. Machines do fail, but not nearly as often as humans do.


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