Driving into a Safer Future

By Debbie Hersman

Google autonomous car software
Google is using advanced technologies to test a self-driving vehicle

Last week, I visited Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to see Google’s self-driving car. This is one of those things where you really do have to see it to believe it.

The autonomous car sees much more than the driver can — thanks to 360-degree perception (no more blind spots!). Better still, the automated algorithmic driver never gets sleepy, distracted, or drunk.

Google is working on this project to make driving safer, more efficient, and more pleasurable. I saw for myself as the car negotiated Bayshore Freeway — how it was able to avoid other vehicles, how it slowed and sped up with the flow of traffic, and how, when necessary, it turned control of the vehicle to the human driver. It was quite amazing.

As Google’s Distinguished Software Engineer Sebastian Thrun has said, “While this project is very much in the experimental stage, it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future thanks to advanced computer science.”

Earlier this week, however, I saw what transportation can look like today at the 22nd Enhanced Safety of Vehicles Conference.  I appreciated NHTSA Administrator Strickland’s invitation to talk about the NTSB’s recommendations regarding how technology can improve safety in commercial vehicles.  The NTSB has investigated a number of fatal crashes involving buses and heavy trucks that could have been prevented with the use of forward-collision warning systems or electronic stability control.

While NHTSA and the automobile manufacturers have done a great deal to improve safety in our personal vehicles, it is sad, but true, that my six-year-old mini-van has more safety technology than most commercial vehicles on our roads today. These are safety improvements that are currently available.

I will continue watching Google to see what is possible in the car of tomorrow, but we do not have to wait for the self-driving car to save lives on our roads. We can do that now by moving forward with off-the-shelf technology in the largest and heaviest vehicles on the road.

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