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Driverless cars becoming a reality despite safety concerns

Ready or not, driverless cars are becoming a reality, and already hitting the streets in Michigan thanks to a first-of-its-kind state law allowing fully autonomous vehicles on all public highways. But there are still major safety concerns.

Michiana motorists have plenty to worry about on the highway, especially in the snow, but if you drive on any of the 122,000 miles of public roads in the state of Michigan you could have another potential concern - cars without drivers in the lane right next to you.

“That’s just not a good idea!” Joyce Turner said.

Turner, a resident of Coloma, loves to drive, but she’s worried about the rapid increase of autonomous vehicle testing on public streets.

Shuttles run by a company called May Mobility were the first to carry passengers on real roads with other vehicles in downtown Detroit last fall. They have no steering wheel and don’t need a human operator.

“Electronics are all wonderful, but things go wrong and you have no control," Turner said. “I road trip a lot and I don’t want to see a car next to me without a driver. I’d probably freak out and get away from it as quick as I could.”

Carrie Morton is the Deputy Director of Mcity, a state of the art autonomous vehicle development facility at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“These vehicles, in many cases, are safer than humans with the amount of sensor technology on board," Morton said.

Morton took us on a test drive in a Lincoln MKZ outfitted with cameras, transmitters, sensors and an extremely accurate GPS system as it drove us around the closed track laid out like a small city, complete with building facades, stop signs, traffic lights - even train tracks.

“Here we have a simulated train so our vehicle is going to stop and wait for the train to pass," Morton said.

There is no train, other vehicles or pedestrians. It’s all simulated to act like an unpredictable highway or city traffic.

“We call this augmented reality testing. So it allows us to create virtual vehicles that this car can interact with," Morton said.

The train and other vehicles are visible on the screen and the driverless Lincoln interacts with them like they were real.

Mcity has also done safety tests with pedestrians walking out into traffic and bikes not following the rules of the road.

The goal is fully autonomous vehicles that don’t need a driver or even a steering wheel and Michigan has the most aggressive laws in the nation to try and make that happen.

It could happen very soon.

General Motors is vowing to roll out its fully autonomous vehicle with no steering wheel or brake pedal called “Cruise AV” by next year.

But those vehicles have been in some two dozen reported test crashes in California.

Just last month, a privately-owned Tesla model S on autopilot crashed at 65 miles an hour into the back of a fire truck in California when the vehicle in front of the Tesla suddenly swerved to avoid the fire truck.

“Those accidents that have occurred are with emerging technology in early stages of automation and our goal is the long term," Morton said.

The US Department of Transportation estimates fully automated vehicles could eliminate 90-percent of crashes caused by human error in the future.

But a recent study by AAA found 63-percent of US drivers would be afraid to ride in a driverless vehicle and 46-percent would feel less safe sharing the road with them.

Tim Ramsey was a long haul trucker for 45 years. He fears automation could put truck drivers out of work.

“I don’t see how a computer can see weather changes and traffic, there’s so many things you have to make sudden decisions," Ramsey said.

He’s not ready to make the leap just yet.

"After driving over 4 million miles I like doing it myself," Ramsey said. “You just have to wait and see on something like that because it’s definitely coming in the future I’m sure.”

All the major car companies, as well as Google’s Waymo and ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft are racing to get approvals from the feds to put their vehicles on the road.

So buckle up, the future is about to arrive faster than many of us ever thought.

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