Google is designing a system that allows a car to drive itself. This system is in operation in California, and the highway patrol allows Google to test these cars on the freeways. I have not seen any of these cars myself yet, but from the description that UMBC provides, they are Priuses with some extra sensory gear on their rooftops, so they shouldn’t be that hard to spot.
A self driving car has some major advantages, which the features of the Prius compound. The Prius is one of the few vehicles that gets better city mileage than highway mileage, because it has extra features such as the ability to store kinetic energy when the driver brakes. To gain the full benefit of these features, the driver must operate the vehicle differently than other cars, so a robotic driving system has some great potential here.
The self driving car can easily be more fuel efficient, in general, than a car that a traditional driver operates. Drivers commonly vary speeds to pass other vehicles on the freeway and don’t end up gaining extra time by doing this, but do end up wasting fuel. The self driving car can determine the exact speed to travel for a vehicle to provide the most fuel efficiency, as well. This system should also provide less wear and tear on the brakes and the transmission, in case the human driver is driving the car in a way that damages the car.
The car also knows the most efficient route to get to a destination because of its control system. It’s possible for a human driver to use electronic maps, of course, but the driver may make an error and miss an exit, which won’t happen if the computer knows the correct route. The main flaw with these systems is that they do not have correct maps in all areas, which is a major risk in a rural area or a location subject to many road closures, but should not be a problem in an urban area like San Francisco.
Self driving cars also have the potential to avoid accidents, because of their built in safeguards. Since these systems will appear fairly risky to the other drivers on the road at first, the computer navigation system will probably be required to follow rules which other drivers don’t usually follow, such as keeping a safe distance from other cars on the freeway when traveling at high speeds. The limited tests were successful so far and the Google cars didn’t cause any accidents, although one driver did rear end one of these test vehicles.