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Self-Driving Cars: Science Fiction Future Is Near


People in several American states may be surprised to see cars on city streets without a driver. Experimental driverless vehicles now are legal in Florida, Nevada and California. They are pointing the way to a future that is not that far down the road.

The high-tech company Google has a fleet of self-driving cars, which had logged 480,000 kilometers by August. Major auto manufacturers in the United States and Europe also are working on the technology for autonomous vehicles. Volvo is among the companies doing road tests and says it plans to sell driverless cars by 2020.

In September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill to allow autonomous vehicles on the roads of his state. “Today we're looking at science fiction becoming tomorrow's reality, the driverless car.”

The technology for these cars includes cameras, radar and motion sensors. The systems have been improved through competitions sponsored by the U.S. government agency DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Engineer Richard Mason of the Rand Corporation helped design driverless vehicles for DARPA challenge races between 2004 and 2007.

“And every two years, the cars came back and they took in 10 times as much data as they did before, so after four years, 100 times more data. Now, they also cost more, but there's just this exponential increase in capability,” said Mason.

Visitors to the recent Los Angeles Auto Show got a glimpse of the future, with its integration of electronics and mechanics through robotics.

Cars have become much more fuel-efficient, and new electronic features are making Hondas safer, said Angie Nucci of Honda America. “A camera that's mounted on the passenger-side mirror actually engaged on your navigation screen so you can safely change lanes.”

Other safety features on some high-end models include collision warning systems on the front and the sides of the cars.

These systems help drivers, but don't replace them. Curator Leslie Kendall of the Petersen Automotive Museum said autonomous cars will go a step further and make the highways safer.

“By taking out individuals in the transportation equation you also remove most of the likelihood for an accident,” Kendall said.

He said consumers, however, may be reluctant to lose control. “It's going to take time for them to come to realize that the technology is indeed reliable, but it will have to prove itself first.”

Mason said the technology already works and the biggest challenge now is getting down the cost for driverless vehicles, from hundreds of thousands of dollars to something more affordable. He said that as the technology is refined, that will happen.

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