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Freakonomics Radio: Baby, you can program my (driverless) car

"So the throttle, the brake, the steering wheel, the turn signals -- everything is being controlled by a computer right now," says engineer Jarrod Snider.  "I’m just sitting here."

Teams of engineers and computer scientists are in a race right now to create the first fleet of driverless cars.

One of those teams is at Carnegie Mellon University. 

“The 20th century kind of represented the love affairs of Americans with cars,” says Raj Rajkumar, co-director of a research lab at CMU. “We are essentially trying to take the love affair away.”

Stephen Dubner took a ride with Rajkumar and his colleagues in the latest prototype, a Cadillac SUV (the CMU lab is partially funded by GM). Behind the bumpers and buried in the internal compartments are lasers, radars, cameras and computers, constantly processing the world around the car and making decisions on where and how to drive. On a test course, the car avoided obstacles, negotiated four-way stops and dealt with the erratic behavior of other test cars.

Dubner says the hidden side of this technology comes in how it could change the world outside of these vehicles.  

Parking spots could disappear in some places, as driverless cars shuttle a customer from one errand to the next. Personal auto insurance could dramatically change once humans are no longer driving. The 34,000 traffic deaths suffered in the U.S. each year -- most caused by human error -- could be significantly reduced.

About 80 percent of drivers rate themselves above average. But imagine what would happen if we all got out of the driver’s seat...

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