Driving on Auto Pilot
Automakers including BMW, Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen are already in the process of developing self-piloting vehicles, with the Society of Automotive Engineers predicting they’ll be reaching showrooms by 2025. Silicon Valley tech giant Google has reportedly logged more than 300,000 miles on its own homegrown fleet of autonomous prototype models without an accident. What’s more, they’re already legal in four states (California, Florida, Nevada and Texas) with others expected to allow them as the technology advances.
A self-driving car would be able to automatically stay between lane markers, maintain a proper interval in traffic and reduce its speed as necessary before entering a curve, while also observing local speed limits. Such systems would likely be operable only in highway driving and under ideal conditions (good visibility and well-marked lanes, for example); the driver would still be required to monitor the system so he or she could intervene in safety-critical situations. Not just a convenience, robo-cars are hoped to help save lives. More than 30,000 people are killed annually in crashes, with the overwhelming majority of them due to driver error. Surprisingly, creating an auto-motorcar doesn’t require a proverbial reinvention of the wheel. Engineers are working to leverage off-the-shelf technology like GPS navigation, electric power steering, laser proximity detectors, monitoring cameras, electronic throttle control and auto braking, and network it all into one integrated function.
Already there are cars that offer laser-guided adaptive cruise control that automatically works the brakes and throttle to keep the car a safe distance from the traffic ahead at highway speeds; some systems can even operate in stop and go traffic. Several models now offer forward-collision mitigation systems that will automatically apply the brakes at full force to avoid a crash if the driver isn’t reacting quickly enough. Volvo will be introducing a system in Europe later this year that will self-brake to avoid hitting pedestrians and bicyclists who may suddenly dart into a vehicle’s path.
Also, blind spot and lane-departure detection systems are finding their way into a growing number of vehicles. While a few models include the ability to “nudge” the vehicle back into a lane via braking and/or steering adjustments without driver intervention, a new lane-departure system debuting in the 2014 Infiniti Q50 will automatically make minor steering adjustments to help keep the sedan centered between the lane markers in the first place.
And several automakers now offer automatic-parking systems, with the driver only required to modulate the brake pedal. Audi recently previewed a future system that would allow a driver to simply leave the car at the door of a parking garage and allow the vehicle to locate the nearest available space on its own and park itself via an array of cameras and sensors. The system would even work the other way around, with the car able to automatically pull out of the space when summoned and drive back to the entrance.
Unfortunately, self-driving cars face a number of hurdles, none the least of which is consumer acceptance. Research conducted by J.D. Power & Associates in Westlake Village, Calif., indicated that just 37 percent of vehicle owners surveyed “definitely would” or “probably would” purchase an autonomous driving system in their next car, with that number dropping to 20 percent when a price is given, which for the sake of argument was pegged at $3,000.
And then there’s a host of thorny legal issues automakers will have to contend with, including product liability, negligence and design defects. For example, who would be held accountable if a self-driving car is involved in a crash, the motorist sitting behind the wheel or the manufacturer? If a car is set to maintain a certain speed and doesn’t react in due course when the posted limit changes, is the driver liable for the ensuing speeding ticket? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is embarking on a $2 million research project to explore the safety and reliability of self-piloting autos and develop a set of regulations that govern them, but it could well be the courts that decide when – and if – any of us are able to own an autonomous auto.
Now about that flying car…