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Here Now: Automobiles That Drive Themselves

Cedric HughesThroughout the 20th Century, motorized vehicles, called ‘automobiles,’ remained as originally named, ‘horseless carriages.’ Horsepower-measured engines replaced the horse and the ‘carriage’ evolved, but human drivers remained an essential part of the equation. It is only in the past five years with the development of the driverless car that we have glimpsed, finally, a truly ‘autonomous’ automobile age.

In the February issue of Wired magazine, Tom Vanderbilt overviews the development progress of the driverless car. He notes that in addition to Google’s highly publicized self-driving car, “just about every traditional automaker is developing its own self-driving model, peppering Silicon Valley with new R&D labs to work on the challenge.” BMW, VW, Audi, Toyota, Mercedes Benz—all have succeeded in building wholly self-driving cars with varying degrees of ability to auto-pilot their way through a variety of traffic and road conditions.

Self-driving cars employ in various combinations and degrees of sophistication the following technologies: radar to track nearby objects; ‘lidar’ to ‘generate a point cloud that gives the car a 360-degree view’; lane-keeping recognition systems; night view assist systems; stereo vision to spot potential hazards and predict where they are going; GPS positioning systems for navigational purposes; and wheel encoders to measure and control speed.

Mr. Vanderbilt notes that the pace of development has been rapid: “The last time I was in a self-driving car—Stanford University’s “Junior” at the 2008 World Congress on Intelligent Transportation Systems—the VW Passat went 25 miles per hour down two closed-off blocks. Its signal achievement seemed to be stopping for a stop sign at an otherwise unoccupied intersection. Now, just a few years later, we are driving close to 70 mph with no human involvement on a busy public highway—a stunning demonstration of just how quickly, and dramatically, the horizon of possibility is expanding.”

But we aren’t there quite yet. Simple ‘low-tech’ maintenance can still bedevil the most sophisticated technological systems. Lane-detection systems, for example, require unworn lane and edge markings on the roads. Weather challenges radar and cameras. Hand-off management is unclear.

As Mr. Vanderbilt notes: “For as long as anyone, even Google, is willing to predict, cars will by necessity be semi-autonomous; human drivers will still have to play some role.” But figuring out when human drivers might still be better than automatic systems is complicated. Driving laws are fundamentally based on the concept of driver control. Thus far only Nevada has legislation permitting autonomous cars to drive legally on state highways. The legal issues are, as Mr. Vanderbilt puts it, “uncharted” territory.

And when we do fully arrive in the new ‘autonomous’ automobile age, there may be unexpected surprises. Since robotic cars are also networkable, as we relinquish driving control, the notion of individual car ‘ownership’ may become increasingly archaic. Self-driving cars may come to be seen as a service rather than an object to be owned and maintained. This promises resolution for traffic jam and parking issues, not to mention what minimal crashes would mean for happier, healthier, less risky lives.

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