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Are Self-Driving Cars Safe?

The idea of trusting a car to drive itself can be eerie. Though most of us rely heavily on complex technology, we're also very used to glitches in our laptops and smartphones. And while it doesn't kill us if Facebook freezes up, it can be a different matter if the computers governing a car aren't operating perfectly.

But Google, a frontrunner in autonomous vehicle development, argues that it's actually safer to have a computer at the controls. The vast majority of automobile accidents are due to human error, which Google says self-driving cars can eliminate.

The self-driving cars are fitted with sensors that detect lanes, stoplights, traffic and other obstacles, and link that information with GPS data. Google and several automakers have retrofitted everyday cars with this technology; Google has reportedly racked up 700,000 miles on a fleet of about a dozen cars. There have been two accidents in the Google fleet – one car was hit while sitting at a stoplight and another was involved in a crash while a human driver was operating it.

Under current laws – which autonomous vehicle advocates hope could be eased – a licensed driver must be in an autonomous car at all times, ready to use manual controls to take over from the computer at any time. If you've flown in a commercial airline flight or ridden in some subway systems, you've put your trust in a similar system.

Of course, some of those systems have had infamous failings. And semi-autonomous features on existing cars have had some embarrassing glitches as well; automatic braking systems from Mercedes-Benz and Volvo ended in wrecks while the automakers were demonstrating them to media.

Google is preparing to launch an ambitious test program of 200 new purpose-built autonomous vehicles to further ensure their safety. Analysts are predicting that self-driving cars could be on the market by 2020.

Brady Holt, a Washington D.C. newspaper reporter, has had a lifelong interest in cars in the automotive world, and he'll share his thoughts at every available opportunity. Brady has written for since 2008, publishing hundreds of car reviews, automotive news pieces and other features. His work can be found on

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