James Werrell

Technology can save us from fender-benders

Google self-driving cars are not accident-free. But it’s human drivers who are causing all the problems.

In California, where Google launched its self-driving car project more than six years ago, researchers recently reported that the driverless vehicles have been involved in 11 “minor” accidents. But none of the accidents were caused by Google’s cars.

Researchers say their cars have been side-swiped a few times and rear-ended seven times. This occurs mainly at traffic lights, where human-driven cars run into Google cars at low speeds.

In other words, the biggest hazard on the roadway is what it always has been: other drivers.

The South Carolina Highway Patrol is blaming distracted drivers for a jump in wrecks involving stopped vehicles in Interstate 85. So far this year, 408 accidents along the interstate have resulted from drivers plowing into stopped cars, compared to 314 at this time last year.

Authorities say the problem isn’t that the vehicles are stopped but that other drivers are too disengaged to see the congestion in time to avoid an accident.

The story is the same all over the nation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that drivers on U.S. roads get hit from behind every 17 seconds. A third of all crashes are rear-end collisions.

We could rail against all the drivers who are texting, talking on their cell phones, applying makeup, fiddling with the radio or the GPS, eating a hamburger or just looking at something other than the road when they ram into the car in front of them. Or, like Google, we could turn to technology.

Thankfully, that technology already is available. Ten of the world’s largest automakers announced last week that they will start making automatic emergency braking a standard feature on all their future car models sold in the U.S.

The auto-braking systems use radar, cameras or lasers that can detect objects in front of the car. If the system detects that a crash is about to occur, it can sound a warning for the driver and, if the driver doesn’t react, it can engage the brakes and stop the car to prevent the collision.

Many cars now sold in the U.S. already are equipped with these sensor systems. My wife’s new car not only has a forward-facing camera but also a rear-facing one. It also has side cameras that detect vehicles in the blind spot and sound a warning if the car wanders out of the lane.

The biggest “whiz-bang!” feature of this car is cruise control that automatically maintains a minimum distance between our car and the vehicle in front of it. If the car in front slows down, so does our car.

And if the cars are in danger of colliding, the sensor will bring our car to a complete stop.

It’s an unsettling experience the first few times you allow the car to stop itself. (“Trust the force, Luke!”)

The car does what it is supposed to, slowing and then stopping within a few feet of the car in front.

“Was that you or the car?” my wife asked when we went for a test drive.

“That was the car,” I answered, awed by this futuristic technology. It’s immediately apparent that we’d all be a lot safer if every vehicle had this feature.

I’m ready for self-driving cars. I would love to slide into a car after a night of partying, tell it, “Home, Jeeves,” and then settle back and enjoy the ride.

Wouldn’t it be great to set some coordinates on the dash, go to sleep and then wake up at a faraway destination eight hours later?

That still is something of a distant dream. But we already have the technological means to prevent thousands of fender benders and more serious accidents – to protect us from other drivers and our own bad driving.

This innovation could rank with seatbelts and airbags in terms of revolutionizing auto safety. And it not only protects lives but also property.

I salute the automakers who are involved in this effort. Welcome to the future.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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