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Driverless cars: safety concerns and technological possibilities

Driverless cars keep coming closer and closer. Sure, many of us have heard of Google's efforts to construct such a computer-operated car. But until recently, the venture seemed pretty speculative - not something that could soon affect drivers in Texas and across the country.

This week, however, there was a reminder of just how far self-driving cars have come.     A key committee in the U.S. Senate held a hearing to discuss the challenges and concerns these cars create. The concerns definitely include highway safety and product liability issues.

The hearing was in the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, chaired by Sen. Jay Rockefeller. To his credit, the senator acknowledged that unproven computer technology involves the possibility of motor vehicle accidents.

In many respects, this challenge is similar to those that already exist in the automobile industry. Makers of car and trucks must find ways to integrate technological improvements into vehicles in ways that make driving more, not less, safe.

That integration can be difficult. After all, technological devices such as smartphones are well known to raise the risk of distracted driving by car or truck drivers.

The hearing about driverless cars, however, took such concerns to an entirely new level. Sen. Rockefeller questioned, for example, whether making motor vehicles more and more computerized could make them vulnerable to cyberattacks.

This is hardly an outrageous fear in a world in which cyberattacks are already a serious problem. But driverless cars also offer possibility of technological breakthroughs that could prevent many accidents by enabling vehicles to communicate with each other better.

Advocates of driverless cars like to claim that 90 percent of crashes are caused by human mistakes. But it remains to be seen how driverless technology can bring that percentage down.

Source: "Senators see 'great potential' in driverless car technology," The Hill, Keith Lang, 5-15-13

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