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gullfinder 12-03-2011 12:03 PM

Driverless cars--Heaven Forbid
Will Driverless Cars Become the New Road Rage?
The sci-fi dream of no-hands vehicles could be real within a decade

Its late summer day, and I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of a BMW 3 Series at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Salinas, Calif. Sitting, not driving. When I lift my hands from the wheel at the beginning of this 2.2-mile course, the car accelerates to 75 mph almost instantly, pushing me and my passengers—BMW engineers and executives—into our leather seats. The car’s computer brain, using satellite signals to navigate the track, is in control.

“Wait until you see what’s coming up,” says Tom Kowaleski, a BMW spokesman, as we head for the Corkscrew, a steep, tight S-curve and the scene of numerous YouTube crash videos. We hit it at about 40 mph, and I have to sit on my hands to keep them from grabbing the wheel back from the machine. The executives chuckle.

This 3 Series is part of BMW’s ongoing efforts to improve the technology behind driverless vehicles and understand how computerized chauffeurs might be used in the real world. Similar projects are under way at General Motors, Volkswagen, Google, and at research labs around the world. While the current technology is good enough to navigate roadways and recognize obstacles, it needs some refinement before it’s street-safe, says Thilo Koslowski, an industry analyst with researcher Gartner. The component costs also need to come down, he says. Still, there’s enough activity that governments are beginning to think about how to regulate the new smart vehicles. “In 10 years you will see the first kind of autonomous vehicles” on regular streets, says Koslowski. “The privilege of driving is going to be redefined.”

The idea of self-driving cars is almost as old as the car itself. GM’s vision for the future of transportation at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York included driverless cars. Automakers say recent advances in computing power and networking technologies make it feasible to build real ones. Although the experiments vary in their details, autonomous cars generally use GPS to recognize where they are on the road. Cameras, lasers, and radar help them keep their distance from other cars and recognize objects like pedestrians. Superfast processors weave all the inputs together, allowing cars to react quickly.

Proponents say the promise is enormous: Turning the wheel over to computers could lead to less traffic, fewer collisions, and more transportation options for aging societies. The world’s population is predicted to grow 33 percent, to 9.3 billion, by 2050. If that population were to live like Americans, there would be 7.7 billion cars on the roads—up from 850 million today. That enormous fleet would consume 375 million barrels of oil per day, more than five times the global production in 2008, according to John Sterman, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. The traffic problem that already cripples many of the world’s megacities would get a whole lot worse. Bringing the reliability of silicon to the roads would help solve these problems: Autonomous cars could potentially drive at high speeds and close together without fear of wrecks or jams, cutting down on wasted time and gas.

Some auto executives worry about what will happen to their businesses if traffic continues to get worse and driving becomes more trouble than it’s worth. “The freedom of mobility that my great-grandfather brought to people is now being threatened,” said Ford Motor Executive Chairman Bill Ford at a speech earlier this year at the TED technology conference. “Global gridlock is going to stifle economic growth and our ability to deliver food and health care, particularly to people that live in city centers, and our quality of life is going to be severely compromised.”

To avoid that future, car companies from Toyota Motor to Tata Motors have to start thinking of themselves as being in the “transportation services” business, says MIT’s Sterman. “The ones that say we’re in the car manufacturing and sales business are not going to survive the big disruptive transition that is clearly coming.” Automakers are already adding features that cede some of a driver’s control to computers in the name of safety or convenience. Features available in some luxury cars, such as cruise control that uses sensors to maintain a safe distance behind other vehicles or automatic parallel parking, are indicators of an industry starting to think about how we drive, not just what we drive.

Building and servicing intelligent transportation systems, such as the automatic parking feature and real-time traffic feeds, is already a $48 billion industry in the U.S., according to the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. Companies such as Intel and AT&T are eager to grab a piece of that by supplying the microchips and cellular services that help make cars smarter. “Autonomous driving is almost like an evolution of technology rather than a revolution, if you think about the technologies that have been put on vehicles” in recent years, says Chris Borroni-Bird, GM’s director of advanced technology vehicle concepts. His team is working to test the automaker’s EN-V vehicles—autonomous, electric concept cars that made a splash at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010—in the Chinese city of Tianjin.

A major challenge for driverless roadways is finding a way for vehicles to safely and reliably communicate with one another. That requires getting all the automakers and regulatory agencies to agree on a standard. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has begun studying various technologies for vehicle-to-vehicle communication and plans to make a decision by 2013 about whether to continue to study the issue and make rules to regulate it. The NHTSA says intervehicle communication could reduce up to 80 percent of vehicle crashes involving nonimpaired drivers. “That really is the moon shot,” says NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. Car-to-car communication could also allow cars to pass warnings about collisions or traffic to each other. Nevada received national attention this summer when the state enacted a new law requiring the creation of regulations governing autonomous vehicles on highways.

State regulations, however, are far from my mind as the BMW I’m “driving” races through the Corkscrew. The car hugs the curve while taking a right turn, and the wheels thump off the track. An engineer reaches over to grab the wheel to keep us on the road. “Sorry about that,” he says, and later tells me the GPS signal was acting glitchy that day. Obviously, there are still issues to work out before we let go of the wheel for good.

aln 12-04-2011 08:54 PM

Artificial intelligence has been controlling our stock market for a while now. I see the beauty of cars driving themselves in the near future. How near is anyones guess. There have been driverless cars tested in SF for a couple years now with good results.

Imagine climbing into your vehicle and commanding "Bob's house" and being whisked away to your destination without any input from you!

seabob4 12-04-2011 08:56 PM

I WILL NEVER OWN ONE!!!:bashhh::bashhh:

Pierless 12-04-2011 09:16 PM

Originally Posted by seabob4 (Post 4193354)
I WILL NEVER OWN ONE!!!:bashhh::bashhh:

Nah, once you have rewired a few you will change your mind :grin:

seabob4 12-04-2011 09:25 PM

Man, rowing through the gears on my Maxima, hitting the corner apex and getting on the throttle...nope, ain't gonna happen!

yarcraft91 12-05-2011 05:29 AM

Driverless vehicles have been around for years.

Look at the cars around you on the road. People behind the wheel are talking on cell phones, texting, reading the newspaper, eating, putting on make-up, etc.- certainly not driving! :bashhh:

08087 12-05-2011 05:38 AM

Once they perfect it they will offer deep insurance discounts for driverless cars and those that don't know how to drive and are getting behind the wheel now will pick them up like crazy. Also men and women that will use their commute time to get work or even sleep done will be standing in line for them.

You and I will be in a high risk catagory and be paying through the nose.

billinstuart 12-05-2011 06:41 AM

Originally Posted by 08087 (Post 4193560)
Once they perfect it they will offer deep insurance discounts for driverless cars and those that don't know how to drive and are getting behind the wheel now will pick them up like crazy. Also men and women that will use their commute time to get work or even sleep done will be standing in line for them.

You and I will be in a high risk catagory and be paying through the nose.

Every winter, we in Florida import thousands of "driverless" vehicles. I can tell you with absolute certainty the system does NOT work!

tomanyboats 12-05-2011 06:49 AM

How bout Will Smiths Audi in I-Robot, none for me thanks..

David C French 12-05-2011 10:12 AM

Kind of like the tram at Disney or perhaps an airport near you. Airbus kind of put the pilotless into commercial aviation basically boiling it down to the "pilot" suggesting to the computers where he/she would like to go and what he/she would like to do and after a few layers of computer discuss it he/she may (most likely) or may not (occasionally) go do what he/she want/need to. Boeings 777 and 787 now have a similar system but with different laws and limits. My understanding is that in an Airbus with fly by wire if the "pilot" screws up to the point it will take a 2.1 gee pull to avoid a mountain, the computer will limit the pull to the certified 2.0 gee which could result in an attempt to fly through something much more substantial the thin air. Boeing has basically the same laws with the exception that if the pilot/s upon reaching the 2.0 gee limit needs more gee to avoid a more substantial substance, he/she must apply an additional 90 pounds back pressure on the yoke to exceed the certified max load factor. (This may require additional airframe inspections and a shorter airframe life, but the pilots driving the Boeing still have an airplane and their lives)
Pilotless, driverless, operatorless vehicles of all sorts are coming. Just got to make sure the engineers and programmers operate the first generations as they work the bugs/virus's out of them.

Garett 12-05-2011 10:59 AM

Yeah but if driverless vehicles comes to be, then how will all the cities and little towns fill their coffers? Bust people for spitting on the sidewalks, picking their nose or scratching their ass? :grin: :trout:

Blythe1022 12-05-2011 12:31 PM

Sounds great. No more taxi rides home from the watering holes. I'll take a shot every time at the bar to celebrate never seeing another Nigerian cab driver. I would love to take a nap on long roadtrips. No more worrying with other people that can't drive. The only setback would be not making up time on the road. For those 3 reasons alone I would trade "big brother" knowing where I am all the time. My tinfoil hat will protect me at the house. LOL

notgottaboatyet 12-05-2011 12:33 PM

Buying an awesome BMW not to drive it... I can see it now the computer hacker car jacker. One click and your car is no longer yours the hacker can drive you anywhere or into anything.

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