New technology: Driverless cars are just around the corner

  • Article by: TIMOTHY TAYLOR
  • Updated: March 9, 2013 - 6:17 PM

But in the not-too-distant future, driverless cars will be leaving the special-effects studio and heading for your driveway.

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A car without a driver has long been the stuff of B-grade entertainment. For children, there’s Herbie “The [Volkswagen] Love Bug” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

Who can forget “Knight Rider,” the 1980s television show in which David Hasselhoff was routinely out-emoted by a custom Pontiac Trans Am? In the 1977 schlock classic “The Car,” a driverless Lincoln Continental terrorized a Utah town. The 1983 movie “Christine” dramatized a Steven King story about a Plymouth Fury with a mean streak.

But in the not-too-distant future, driverless cars will be leaving the special-effects studio and heading for your driveway.

Back in 2004, the U.S. Department of Defense held a contest to see if driverless cars could negotiate a 150-mile course. None of the entrants succeeded. By 2012, Google was announcing that its fleet of autonomous cars was logging several hundred thousand miles in real-world traffic on roads across California and Nevada.

The potential safety benefits of driverless cars are remarkable. More than 30,000 Americans are killed each year in road accidents, and another 240,000 or so have injuries severe enough to require hospitalization. But the driverless car won’t get drunk. It won’t drive like an excitable teenager. It won’t suffer momentary lapses of attention. It will observe traffic rules. It won’t experience slowing reflexes or diminishing vision as it ages.

About 86 percent of U.S. workers drive to their jobs, and the average travel time is 25 minutes each way, according the U.S. Census Bureau. Multiply that by two directions, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, and the average person is spending more than 200 hours per year — the equivalent of five 40-hour workweeks — sitting in a car commuting to and from work.

In a world of driverless cars, this time — and all the additional time we now spend driving — could be used to work, draw up a shopping list, watch a movie, read a book, make a phone call, look out the window or even take a nap.

Traffic congestion could diminish, because automated cars, with their electronic reflexes, would be able to travel more closely — even “platooning” together into caravans. Also, automated cars can use narrower lanes and road shoulders, creating room for more lanes of traffic.

Ultimately, driverless cars could reshape our perspective on what it means to own a car. For example, instead of owning a car that is unused for 22 hours on many days, you might just dial up a car to pick you up and drop you off when you need it. The savants at Google predict that driverless cars could reduce the overall number of cars by 90 percent.

Imagine a long road trip where you can intentionally fall asleep “at the wheel” — and arrive safely the next morning.

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Already headed this way

An evolution in which driving becomes more automated is already underway. Most cars now on the road have cruise control that regulates speed, antilock brakes that pump much faster than any human foot can and headlights that turn on automatically.

Newer cars are boasting features like the ability to “see” the area around a car and assist with stopping or swerving, and to parallel-park without a human hand on the wheel.

Parents of teenage drivers and insurance companies are encouraging the installation of equipment that monitors speed and watches to see whether braking is done gradually or suddenly. Cars now speak directions to the driver and accept a number of vocal commands.

What’s next? A vocal command to set cruise control, stop or turn? Cars that automatically come to a full stop at stop signs and red lights? Cars that cannot exceed the speed limit?

Eventually, some parking lot in a crowded downtown area will announce that it is open only for driverless cars. That is, you will need to drive up to the entrance, then let the car park itself. That parking lot will be able to cram many more cars into its space, with fewer door dings and fender dents. And so other parking lots will follow.

Some city will announce that cars linked together with “platoon” technology can drive in its carpool lanes or in special toll lanes. Some state with wide-open spaces will announce that driverless cars are legal on its miles of lightly congested highways. Some community will announce that when you reach a residential area, all human drivers must hand off to the automation system for a slow and safe drive down the last mile or two of local roads.

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