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Guest column | Dr. Rao Musunuru

Ban texting while driving until cars can navigate for us

The human brain is far superior to any super computer in spite of the victories of IBM's Deep Blue and M. Watson. It is the human brain that conceived the idea and constructed these machines. Over many decades, almost every fiction dreamed up by Hollywood has been achieved by the scientists, from spaceflights to conversing computers.

For a while now, the industry has been developing the technology that enables automobiles to drive automatically. At first thought, the idea is scary, (thanks to movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Total Recall) but it is probably one of the best things that ever happened. Just like fax machines that appeared overnight in every office, self-driving cars will be roaming the roads all over the world in the near future.

What happens if they malfunction? Nothing more than what happens now with any automobile or driverless trains. The passenger aircraft has long been able to fly and land themselves, with proper instructions. A vast majority of accidents are caused by distracted or impaired humans, not because of pure mechanical malfunction. Unfortunately, the superior features of the human brain are sometimes nullified by its unwanted characteristics such as arrogance and negligence.

Self-driving cars have already traveled more than 250,000 miles on public highways in California and Nevada with a perfect safety record. They mastered crooked Lombard Street in San Francisco and they drove Dan Neil, an auto columnist for the Wall Street Journal, on Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca, with a corkscrew road.

According to American Automobile Association, the cost of automobile accidents in the U.S. totals $300 billion annually and the cost of traffic congestion is about $100 billion. More than 30,000 people are killed each year in U.S. crashes despite huge advances in auto safety with already available driver-assistance technology.

Pioneers in the field estimate that driverless cars could save a substantial number of lives each year. These cars are immune to distractions caused by talking on cell phones, texting and checking emails, eating and drinking, grooming and shaving, reading and writing, watching TV or a video, adjusting the radio or CD player, checking the navigation system, watching the scenery, putting on make-up, fighting with passengers and disciplining children. They are also not impaired by alcohol, drugs, sleep deprivation and anger. They can react instantaneously and accurately. They always maintain the lane, use turn signals and never tailgate. They always respect red lights or stop signs. They keep detailed logs. They always remind you way before the time for refueling and maintenance service.

The self-driving cars use computerized maps, Internet and a GPS system to determine the right route to your destination and get the passengers there safely. They can anticipate and read street signs, signals, traffic lights and road blocks much farther and faster than the human eye, without any anxiety, distraction or stress. They can analyze the traffic using sophisticated cameras, sensors, radar, telemetry and lasers along with artificial intelligence at an extraordinary speed, with the help of transponders or reflectors along the road. They can communicate and coordinate with each other on the road without using fingers or mouths. If you know a short cut to your destination, the car can memorize the route for the next trip.

After dropping you off at work, the auto-driving vehicle can drive itself back to your home or anywhere else for that matter, on your command, and your family or friends can use the same car all day and send it back to you when you are ready to go home. It can easily self-park. Platooning (self-driving cars driving in an organized and disciplined way) can avoid traffic jams, pile ups and save fuel costs.

The U.S. Department of Transportation and the University of Michigan are launching a yearlong $25 million project to test the ability of this technology to reduce traffic crashes, using 2,800 cars, trucks and buses from various manufacturers, before instituting any mandatory technological advances for the auto makers.

I sincerely hope that the self-driving cars will be readily available and widely used by the time I am older with poor vision, impaired hearing, weak legs and shaky hands. I won't mind giving up the control, as I can always change to manual, when needed.

Wait a minute, I may not last that long, even if I am a perfect driver, if the National Safety Council is right and about 2.6 million accidents a year are caused by cell phone use and texting.

So far the Florida Legislature has not been brave enough to ban texting while driving, which is considered the most dangerous driver distraction.

Who knows? Now that the election is over and the focus is back on governing, maybe we'll get lucky in the next legislative session with a nudge from the exceptional local leadership.

Dr. Rao Musunuru is a practicing cardiologist based in Hudson.

Ban texting while driving until cars can navigate for us 11/08/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 8, 2012 4:16pm]
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