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Are we ready for self driving cars?

A few weeks ago a new vehicle testing centre in Sweden opened, designed purely to evaluate and assess safety technology.

One of the demonstrations at the site included sitting in the driving seat of a Volvo S60 fitted with autonomous technology. I sat behind the wheel while the car drove around a part of the track meant to similate high-speed rural roads, keeping a safe distance from the vehicle in front and keeping in the centre of the lane.

I was a passenger in the vehicle for a total of 10 miles and nothing happened that suggested the vehicle, its occupants and other road users were put at risk.

Polls suggest that drivers are currently overwhelmingly against the idea of autonomous vehicles. It makes me wonder if these are the same drivers I see, eyes fixed on their mobile phone screen as they tap in a message, status or tweet, only glancing back up at the road every few seconds.

Or perhaps the same people that are too busy in a conversation in their car to notice that they have left the unrestricted speed country road and are now in a village with a 30mph limit.

It could be the same people that react angrily and aggressively if another driver inadvertently cuts them up, or a vehicle pulls out in front of them joining a main road from a junction when there isn’t quite enough space.

Driverless or autonomous technology will have a big impact on these and many more scenarios where there is a risk to road users.

Features already exist on cars that can read the road ahead, adjust speed and braking distance according to the position of the vehicle in front, ensure a car remains in its lane, steer into a parking space, sense other vehicles approaching from behind and react and intervene to avoid collisions. Some can also detwct pedestrians and cyclists, alerting the driver and braking if necessary.

It’s merely a case of joining up the technology. One of Volvo’s technology experts said that a for fully autonomous technology, cars would need twice as many sensors as fitted to a car available today that can steer, brake and detect other vehicles and road users.

Volvo’s Vision 2020 objective is that no one will be seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo by 2020. Beyond that, the aspiration is that no new Volvo car will crash.

There will be extra cost with adding more technology, but this will be offset by savings in insurance. You can already save money on car insurance by choosing a model that comes with autonomous emergency braking.

Acceleration and braking will be done more smoothly and efficiently and fuel and maintenance costs will reduce.

People ask who will be to blame when there’s an accident. But accidents happen now and we have insurance and everything seems to work. When autonomous technology is mainstream accidents will be far less frequent and it wouldn’t surprise me if insurance companies need to look for additional revenue streams.

Just imagine a commute where you can let the car do the boring work while you catch up on emails, or on a long motorway trip to an appointment you can have a conference call or video call while the car does the tedious bit safely.

I’m not advocating that people should no longer drive, and even with the technology the driver will always remain in command of the vehicle, even if the car is doing the driving.

But judging by the standard of driving of most of the people I see on the road every day, this technology can’t come soon enough.