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How exactly do self-driving cars work?

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This story is sponsored by End Text Wrecks. Learn more about End Text Wrecks.

It’s 2017 and self-driving cars are, literally, at our doorstep. This fast-growing industry is projecting to launch 10 million cars with some level of autonomy by 2020, according to a recent article in The Guardian. If you are wondering why or how, you aren’t alone.

How will they work?

Learning about the basics of self-driving cars can help you understand the technology that drives them. Waymo, which stands for “way forward in mobility,” is a self-driving technology company that started with Google in 2009. Waymo explains that self-driving technology relies on sensors and software to identify roadway participants as it travels on the road.

Sensors can distinguish among types of motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, roadwork and other objects from up to 200 yards away in any direction.

Sensors work with software to navigate through complicated scenarios on city streets. Artificial intelligence technologies allow these self-driving cars to learn how to catch cues and predict behavior. Vehicles are “taught” to drive defensively and correctly. According to Waymo, “We rely on 2 million miles of real-world experience to teach our cars to navigate safely and comfortably through everyday traffic.”

Waymo was first to launch the world’s first fully self-driving trip on public roads, in a car without a steering wheel or pedals in 2015. Waymo and companies like it are working to perfect the autonomous technology through 1 billion miles of simulation testing each year. Waymo cars have already self-driven more than 3 million miles on public roads across four U.S. cities.

Beyond the sensor and software needs are the cars themselves and the city infrastructure that will allow the technology to function. According to wired.com, “Companies such as Ford, Mercedes and Tesla are racing to build autonomous vehicles for a radically changing consumer world.” Ford expects to roll out a driverless car by 2021.

Why are self-driving cars needed?

The case for self-driving cars involves goals for 1) improving safety on our roadways, 2) increasing vehicle efficiency, 3) decreasing spending for car fabrication, 4) allowing mobility for all, and 5) easing congestion on roadways and parking lots.

Safety is one of the biggest factors driving the autonomous car industry. Data show that 94 percent of crashes in the U.S. involve human choice or error. Annually, over 1.2 million people die on our roadways. In the U.S. alone, traffic collisions kill over 35,000 people a year. Self-driving cars provide safer transportation, not to mention the benefits they offer the millions of people who cannot drive at all.

A report by the IBI Group, a globally integrated architecture, planning, engineering and technology firm, suggested that autonomous vehicles could “improve public transportation services and decrease auto ownership by enabling more efficient, user-friendly, and low-cost on-demand transportation services, even in low-demand areas,” according to autoguide.com.

Autonomous cars are predicted to transform the Uber or taxi scene. Shared, self-driving cars could be on the move all day, so a car would never need to be parked. This setup would save taxpayers money on parking facilities, gasoline and tips and could even eliminate the need for personal vehicles.

What are the concerns about self-driving cars?

Right now the two main concerns with self-driving cars involve expense and trusting the artificial intelligence that drives them. The expense of constructing new roads and city infrastructure that can accommodate autonomous vehicles will ultimately fall on taxpayers — which most aren’t too keen on.

The biggest roadblock for the self-driving car industry comes down to establishing the reliability of the artificial intelligence, sensors and software that guide these cars. Most of society is understandably skeptical about putting their lives and dollars on the line.

With 1.2 billion cars on the road worldwide today, it’s hard to imagine a world where the driver is nonessential. In the meantime, until every car on the road is a self-driving car, keep phones out of your hands and your eyes on the road.