When I was 17, I got rear-ended at 40 mph by an 81-year-old driver. He claimed to be disoriented by some nearby lights. I watched it all happen in my rearview mirror; he never even slowed down.
It took years of mental and physical therapy to recover from the psychological and neck/shoulder injuries I suffered. The mental therapy mostly involved talking about the crash, and teaching me how to breathe and deal with my hardcore road rage (which I still have somewhat because I drive in Brooklyn).
I took jobs delivering pizza for years in college and working as a mover. I probably have 500,000 miles on the road at this point. My therapist told me I was subconsciously trying to conquer my fears.
All of that might have been avoided if self-driving cars had been around back then.
Fortunately, 2015's a big year for the self-driving car ... and the semi-self-driving car. I'm counting the days until Google picks me up in the morning, but in the meantime, I checked out the 2015 New York International Auto Show last week to find out more about the new "smart" car technology that may put my mind at ease next time I get behind the wheel.
My main takeaway from the Auto Show was that carmakers are increasingly using a mix of cameras, radar and ultrasonic sensors to detect when a forward collision is about to happen. Such a system can automatically hit the brakes and tighten your seatbelt -- or make a bunch of noise so you'll hit the brakes yourself.
While these and other "smart" technologies such as adaptive cruise control were once reserved for luxury brands like Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, now more affordable brands like Subaru, Ford and Honda are all offering some sort of pre-collision braking.
According to John Hansen, the national manager of advanced technology at Toyota, every model and every trim Toyota makes will have this as an option by 2017. Right now, the cheapest car on the market with this technology is the Subaru Legacy at $24,690.
Until the government mandates that these "smart" technologies come standard on every car, however -- just as it did with airbags and antilock brakes -- you're probably going to have to spring for the top trim or the priciest options package to get it.
(If you've ever been to a car dealership, you know that options are how car companies make the most profit. You see an ad that says you can drive a new car off the lot for $99/month, but when you mention that price at the dealership, they say, "Yeah, but you're probably going to want to pay more for the options package that comes with a steering wheel." )
Unfortunately, even if the government were to pass such a mandate, it would take awhile to see a meaningful difference in crash statistics. Most people aren't buying new cars every year. In fact, the average American car is over 10 years old. Let's say I buy a car with forward-collision technology; that's no guarantee the guy behind me has one. The accident that forced me into therapy could just as easily happen again today.
Unless retrofitting used cars with these smart safety features becomes super cheap -- which is super doubtful -- it's going to take over 10 years for most American cars on the road to be equipped with these technologies. And who knows, we may have our self-driving cars by then.
While a fully autonomous vehicle is still in beta mode, it's hard to doubt it'll soon be a reality. Audi just sent one across the country. The big carmakers can see the writing on the wall, and are rolling out more and more interventional technologies to get us consumers good and comfy with not being fully in control behind the wheel.
As Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor at Cars.com, told MTV News, "I love driving on open roads and hate my morning commute. If my car lets me control it out on the highway, but I can press a button that tells the car to take over when I hit a traffic jam, that would be ideal."
There may be technological glitches with self-driving cars at first, and given how many sci-fi movies involve machines annihilating their human overlords, there may be downsides of ceding power to 3,000 pounds of steel on wheels ... but when I think of my experience, and of the 37,000 people who die in automobile crashes every year, the robots don't seem so frightening.