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5 reasons robot cars are inevitable

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Google self-driving carRobot cars are coming -- and probably much sooner than you think.

While flying cars never took off and the Segway was hardly the game-changer it was hyped to be, cars that drive themselves are set to transform the way society gets from point A to point B.

Google got the ball rolling and is still the leader in the arena of autonomous vehicles (AVs), but every major automaker is working on an autonomous model. In fact, some self-driving functionality is already making its way onto showroom floors, and three states -- California, Florida and Nevada -- allow fully autonomous vehicles on public roads as of February 2013.

The timeframe varies, depending on which expert you ask, but they all agree the driverless car is coming. They believe that autonomous vehicles will save lives, cut commute times and improve mobility for the elderly and disabled.

Robot cars might even take a huge chunk out of your insurance bill.

Here are five reasons autonomous vehicles will be the new normal:

Robot cars are safer

Humans have severe limitations when it comes to driving a car. In 2011, a total of 32,367 people died in car accidents and 2.2 million more were injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Drinking was responsible for 9,878 deaths, and distracted driving killed 3,331 people.

Reduced crash rates and car-related fatalities are among the biggest benefits of AVs, says Alberto Broggi, a University of Parma professor whose driverless van traveled 8,000 miles from Rome to Shanghai without incident in 2010.

Autonomous cars don't drink, are never distracted, have a 360-degree view of the surrounding area and never doze off.

Google robotics visionary Sebastian Thrun has predicted that autonomous vehicles will reduce traffic accidents by 90 percent. Other experts agree. In American Scientist, Brian Hayes suggests that autonomous vehicles should aspire to match the death rates of commercial aviation putting fatal car accidents at 320 per year.

"There's one prediction about driverless cars that I can make with confidence: If millions of them ever roam the public highways, they will be far safer than cars driven by people," Hayes writes.

Safety improvements could be so great that insurance rates would drop by over 80 percent, or disappear altogether, consultant firm Celent predicted last year.

Robot cars are more efficient

Cars spend 90 percent of their lives sitting in a garage or parking space instead of out on the road. Even when they hit the road, their human drivers space them so that only 5 percent of a highway's surface is occupied when running at peak throughput.

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute estimates that traffic congestion annually wastes 4.8 billion hours and 1.9 billion gallons of gas, which translates into $101 billion in lost productivity and fuel costs.

A recent study by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers found that AVs would increase highway efficiency by 273 percent. Computer controlled cars could drive much closer together at higher speeds, reducing congestion and improving fuel efficiency.

A car that drives itself is not only more efficient, it makes the driver more productive. The Census Bureau says the average person spends 25.1 minutes commuting to work. AVs would reward commuters with an extra 50 minutes every day.

Robot cars will improve mobility for everyone

According to the Census Bureau, there are more Americans age 65 or older than at any time in U.S. history. While senior citizens would certainly benefit from AVs, so would the blind, the disabled and even tweens.

The IEEE predicts that driverless car-sharing programs will dramatically change the mobility of people of all ages and abilities. As fully automated cars become commonplace, the need for a driver's license could disappear, making it easier for both the old and young to get around.

Futurist Thomas Frey, executive director at the DaVinci Institute, predicts that automakers will shift from building cars to providing transportation, charging a per-mile fee. Why own a car when a push of a button can bring one to your door, drive you to your destination and then disappear. Frey believes that automakers will eventually start promoting the "rider" experience of their vehicles instead of the "driver" experience.

The government wants you to have one

All of this change will require the approval and support of the government. Nevada was the first to license autonomous vehicles. (See "Self-driving cars: You can text, but you can't drink.") Florida and California quickly followed suit, and others are considering it.

The federal government is also getting excited about the possibilities. David Strickland, head of NHTSA, has said that autonomous vehicles could be a "game changer" and has referred to them as the next "evolutionary step" in car technology.

NHTSA is currently working on a set of written rules governing driverless cars and conducting a large-scale test in Ann Arbor, Mich., of technology that allows cars to talk to each other.

Robot cars are already here

How long until you can take a nap on the way to work?

The Celent report has autonomous cars becoming dominant in 2023 while the IEEE puts the date at 2040. But change is already happening.

Volvo claims it will have its traffic jam assist -- which allows a vehicle to drive itself at speeds up to 31 mph -- ready for the 2014 model year.

Adaptive cruise control, which varies vehicle speed to match traffic, is becoming commonplace, as are blind spot monitors. (See how new technology filters its way to cheaper cars.) Audi, BMW and Mercedes have developed concept cars, and Cadillac expects to introduce partially autonomous models by 2015.

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