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Putting Your Car On Autopilot: Convenient – Or Scary?

Google’s experiments with self-driving cars have captured the public’s imagination for quite a while, and it’s not hard to understand why. Being able to relax comfortably (or simply being able to text legally) as your automobile expertly chauffeurs you to your destination would be an intriguing idea to even the most cautious driver.

ilver Tesla Model S electric car

The interest in cars that can drive themselves shifted into overdrive in October, when Tesla released its autopilot software for Model X SUVs and Model S sedans built after September of 2014. The software is already operational in tens of thousands of cars, although owners have to pay a one-time $2500 fee to activate it. That puts Tesla well ahead of Google, whose self-driving cars are still in the beta phase while the company continues testing and battles regulators (particularly those in California) fearful of giving them a full green light.

But is a car with a brain really capable of doing the driving for you? Or is it a ticket to disaster?

Put The Brakes on Your Enthusiasm

First of all, don’t get too excited about a self-driving car just yet. Tesla’s system indeed does keep your auto properly in its highway lane, safely changes lanes when you use the turn signal, avoids other cars, and keeps the proper distance between your car and the one in front of it.

Automobile sensors use in self-driving cars

However, even Tesla founder Elon Musk is urging caution, saying drivers should always keep their hands on the wheel and be ready to re-assume control of the car immediately. He stresses that this is just an initial iteration of the program and that even though the system works well enough to have been released, people should exercise caution.

How much caution? Well, among other things, Musk says that the Tesla autopilot can’t recognize red lights or stop signs yet. And asked if a car using the system could be a danger to people walking along the street, he answered, "It should not hit pedestrians, hopefully."

Car safety system

Tesla’s program learns from data fed back from all of the cars using it, so combined with continued work by the company’s engineers, the autopilot should work smoothly in the next few years. Google feels the same way about its self-driving cars, as do others working on similar systems; they predict a future with "smart" cars not only whisking you anywhere you want to go with less chance of accidents, but actually talking to each other so optimal speeds, following distances and even traffic light synchronization can be a reality.

The question remains, though: can any car on autopilot – even when it runs “smoothly” – really be reliable?

Caution: Roadblocks Ahead

While it seems that cars with autopilots will eventually be able to function pretty well on highways, it might be a very different matter when they’re taken into cities and towns. A recent study performed jointly by American and British experts isn’t encouraging when it comes to high-traffic situations. The academics from SUNY and Imperial College London have run a detailed simulation of the effects self-driving cars might have on traffic, and they see potential problems down the road.

Self-driving car

The researchers tested two basic scenarios. In one, the self-driving cars operated in the way that cars with drivers normally do, with lots of relatively quick stops and starts. In the other, they maximized passenger comfort by slowly starting and slowly stopping in the way that a high-speed train does.

Here’s what they found. Intersection congestion increased dramatically in both scenarios, by as much as 50% with "normal" driving patterns and as much as 2,000% when the slow starts-and-stops model was used. The number of cars able to get through each intersection’s green light also fell by more than 50%.

Right now as Tesla, Google and others continue to test their systems, effectiveness isn’t as much of an issue as it will be in a few years when the programs are expected to be declared fully operational. The data currently available, though, show that it might still be a little scary – or at the very least, inconvenient - to leave the driving to your car.

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