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NC wants "open dialogue" on possibility of driverless cars

The phrase “getting behind the wheel” will be a thing of the past if Google has its way, as the company expects to put people in self-driving cars within two to five years.

Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s self-driving car project, said it would revolutionize automobile travel.

“Imagine never losing someone in a traffic accident again,” he said in an online video. “Imagine cities where parking garages aren’t there, where that land has been turned into homes or turned into parks. It’s going to be an exciting place.”

In preparation for the new technology, 17 states have discussed legislation permitting autonomic vehicles on the roads. North Carolina is not one of these states, but it has had discussions about the inevitable change.

“We very much want to establish an open dialogue and partnership with autonomous vehicle manufacturers to make sure that we’re building a road network that will support the autonomous vehicle operations five years from now,” said Kelly Thomas, the N.C. Commissioner of Motor Vehicles.

UNC freshman Erik Koehler said he is ready to embrace this new reality.

“I would trust driverless cars on a daily basis,” said Koehler. “Computers are much more reliable and predictable than people, so I’d feel more comfortable with a computer driving than with a person.”

But sophomore Tiffany Philbeck said she finds it difficult to trust current technology in cars and can’t see herself depending on an autonomous vehicle.

“My grandmother’s cruise control claims that it can sense when a car is in front of you and it will decelerate for you, but I still always brake just in case,” Philbeck said. “I can’t even trust that, so no way would I trust an entire car to drive for me.”

Freshman O’Malley Bentson added that she was concerned about taking human reactions out of driving.

“Driverless cars sound like a good idea in theory, but I am skeptical of their success,” she said. “Many different situations arise while driving that aren’t controlled by the driver, but the driver must still react in the safest way possible. I find it hard to believe that a car controlled by a computer could react to a sudden threat on the road in a way that would be safe for its passengers and for surrounding vehicles and pedestrians.”

Bentson was also wary about the size of the vehicle — she said the small size of Google’s prototype made her question the vehicle’s safety if it were to get in an accident.

Thomas said he recently spoke with representatives from Toyota, Chrysler, General Motors and Auto Alliance about road infrastructures that support autonomous vehicle technology.

“Like the five-inch white lines we paint today on North Carolina roads: is it wide enough, is it white enough, is it spaced enough on the shoulder to support autonomous vehicle operations?” Thomas said.

Thomas is among the supporters of this technology, saying that when he is older and no longer fit to drive he would still want to get to the golf course and the rest of his usual haunts.

In the video, Urmson said more than 90 percent of auto accidents are caused by human error, killing 33,000 people every year in the U.S. and 1.2 million worldwide.

“If we can bring technology that’s always paying attention, that can see what’s going on around it, that never gets distracted, this is a huge opportunity.”

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