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Will vehicle automation make roads safer or more dangerous?

The age of the self-driving vehicle is quickly approaching. At least that's the impression one is left with after reading some of the recent headlines. Presuming that view is correct the bigger question that might be crossing the minds of folks in Georgia and the rest of the country is whether the development is a good thing or a bad thing.

Proponents of automation say that when the human factor is taken out of the equation vehicle travel will be a lot safer. They say that autonomous or self-driving cars and trucks will make driver fatigue a thing of the past. They also say that negligence accidents that leave victims injured or killed will decline.

It's somewhat hard to dismiss the potential. There are already cars on the road that have self-parking and self-braking technologies on board. Nevada now has licensed a self-driving semitrailer truck for testing. And recent news stories about autonomous test cars being in accidents in California have been softened by word that all of them were minor and none were caused by the self-driving vehicles.

Despite the pace of development, there are some analysts who say the technology faces an uphill climb. Bryan Reimer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology notes that automation doesn't mean there will be less need for human expertise. He says planes on auto-pilot still need humans in emergencies. The suggestion is that auto-piloted cars and trucks will need the same.

The issues that many experts reportedly are pondering now are questions like, what skills will drivers need and what will it take to make sure they don't get so complacent that they fail to act when they need to?

Bryant Walker Smith, a teacher of law and engineering at the University of South Carolina, calls this the "mushy middle" problem of automation. What's the point at which a person is so disengaged that they become unable to perform when action is called for?

That issue hasn't been resolved yet. And Smith says another unknown is how the public will react to any new automation advancement. He says accidents might be reduced with automation but will that make those accidents easier to accept? How will liability be addressed?

These analysts suggest that until the mushy middle gets firmed up by policymakers, the full benefit of autonomous vehicles may never be achieved.

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