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Commentary: Will we need seatbelts?

Can you imagine how you will feel just before your first parachute jump from 5,000 feet when your plan is to free fall the first 1,000 feet before you open your chute? That’s exactly how I’ll feel the first time I get into my new self-driving car that has no steering wheel and no brake pedals.

Google and Ford are developing a self-driving car that could be in production by 2020. Holy smokes, that’s just four years from now.

Why? As things stand now, human drivers are too careless. Every year there are 6 million car accidents in the US which kill 33,000 with an additional 2 million injured, and 94 percent of those accidents are caused by human error.

Yes, but would self-driving cars be any safer? According to those who should know (the US Department of Transportation, Rand Corporation, the nonprofit ENO Center for Transportation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and that crowd), the answer is yes ─ the self-driving cars will be much safer.

For one thing, the computers driving them won’t go to sleep, won’t be distracted by kids, won’t be eating burritos, won’t be watching the beach, won’t be talking on the phone or texting, won’t be steering with its knees and won’t be fiddling with the radio. Beside that, radar sensors will allow cars to set on cruise control that maintains a safe distance from the car ahead; exterior cameras will read lane markings, self-steering to avoid drifting; sensors will monitor surroundings and warn of dangers that drivers can’t see; blind spots will be eliminated; and GPS will take you where you’re programmed to go.

The cars will take you where you want to go, drop you off, then go park the car even if there’s no handy parking spot. It might park miles away. Then when you want to leave, just call and it will pick you up. These cars will be like smart phones on wheels.

One study shows that converting just ten percent of US autos to self-driving, could eliminate 211,000 accidents and save 1,100 lives each year. When self-driving cars are 90 percent of those on the road, the number of accidents avoided would be 4.2 million with 21,700 lives saved. Can you believe it? Besides, there would be no more traffic tickets, huge fuel savings and massive cuts in auto insurance premiums. Another fringe benefit will be fewer insurance agents, insurance adjusters and personal injury lawyers.

With the golden age of auto safety just around the corner, what could anybody possibly worry about? Quite honestly, I can only imagine the sticker shock when looking at the price of one of those marvels of technology. Further than that, even the experts get their computers hacked. I’d like hacking eliminated before I go driverless.

I also worry about the transition period - when some cars are automated and some have human drivers. How can I, and my self-driving car, prevent the dummy behind me from tail-gating? As long as that’s possible, so is road rage. And when four of us arrive simultaneously at a four way stop intersection, who goes first?

How does a computer communicate with somebody who doesn’t have one? How do you program a car for a casual Sunday drive where you stop wherever you see something interesting?

Finally, can the robotic brain understand the necessity of bathroom breaks?

Here’s my advice - be optimistic and brave about riding in driverless cars - but bring a teenager along to show you how it works. You won’t want to head out for Minneapolis and end up in Winnipeg because you don’t know how to turn the monster around.