Hawaii looks to take the lead in race toward driverless cars

From electric to hydrogen vehicles, the way we travel is changing and quickly.

But the perhaps the greatest change in transportation is automation, which takes control away from us often distracted humans and hands it over to technology.

It’s already here, and the future of car travel is definitely in the fast lane.

Rick Nakashima owns one of about a thousand vehicles on Hawaii’s roads that are semi-autonomous, which means they perform some levels of self-driving abilities using upwards of two dozens sensors that see and recognize much more than we ever could.

“The car senses movements and actions from every direction,” said Nakashima. “I truly feel safer when driving in auto-pilot, especially in stop and go traffic. It’s amazing.”

According to Dave Rolf, executive director of the Hawaiian Auto Dealers Association (HADA), the technology, while impressive, is still relatively in the early stages, and that the number of self-driving cars in Hawaii will grow as fast as the technology itself.

“Driverless cars will be here in 2020, they say,” said Rolf, “and there’s five different kinds in five different levels: hands on, hands off, eyes off, mind off, and then no wheel.”

For now, not only do all semi-autonomous cars still have steering wheels, they have built-in sensors that require the driver to, at the very least, maintain a physical connection, even when in auto-pilot mode.

So is the state ready, and are we ready for a car that completely drives itself? Turns out, when it comes to these self-driving cars, Hawaii is in many ways ahead of the curve.

Gov. David Ige recently traveled to Google’s headquarters in California to see firsthand what these cars of the future have to offer.

“The real focus by everybody that we talk to is they truly believe that autonomous vehicles can reduce significantly the traffic deaths on the highways, because these cars can be safer,” said Ige.

Arizona was among the first state’s to embrace Google’s futuristic car, and just last week started allowing residents to sign up for rides in an effort to educate and gain valuable feedback.

Ige says Hawaii is perfect when it comes to hosting and advancing the technology.

“I do believe that Hawaii can be a good test bed for these vehicles,” said Ige. “Obviously, we’re self-contained, and we don’t have to worry about a car traversing the state boundary. We can control the environment.”

Mindful of the fact these cars aren’t perfect and have been involved in accidents, Ige believes by creating scenarios and test situations, Hawaii can play a key role when it comes to improving their safety and ultimately ours.

Something else the governor thinks these self-driving cars could improve is our local economy.

“Part of the conversation was to allow us to hopefully attract research and development type of jobs in addition to serving as a test,” said Ige, “and more importantly in a long-term basis, we are looking to see if we could establish research and development facilities here in Hawaii which would create quality jobs for our community.”

In addition to adding more jobs, there’s also a shared belief these cars could one day help eliminate our worsening traffic.

“Driverless cars can move a lot of people, and it’s believed eventually it will be like a school of fish on the roadway, because they could stay so close to each other,” said Rolf. “I flew fighter jets years ago, and when we were in formation, we had a foot and a half of overlap, so the cars can do that when they’re in the driverless mode.”

While that may be a decade or more away, the reality of today is you may very well be driving next to a car that’s driving itself.

“Right now, with the driverless cars, it’s kind a like having a guardian angel with you,” said Rolf. “The car doesn’t text, and the car doesn’t have a root beer float on the right seat, so it’s actually safer in these driverless modes, so insurance rates go down, accidents go down, deaths on the highways go down.”

While self-driving cars may not get distracted like we do, they’re not perfect.

They can still have trouble with potholes. Even with the car’s many sensors, they can sometimes be missed.

All the sensors in the world can’t keep another car from ramming into you.

Then there’s the issue of making ethical choices. Say a child runs into the road and there’s a pole to the left and a wall to the right. Humans would have to make a choice, but what will the car do?

That’s something engineers are still working on through image identification and other means.

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