Self-Driving Cars

A harried executive comes running out of his hotel, pushes a button on his cellphone and within two minutes his sleek Audi A7 is at the curb. He doesn’t have to tip the valet parking attendant because, in fact, there’s no driver at all.

Welcome to the wonderful world of autonomous driving, circa 2013, fueled by new generations of Americans who’d rather text than take the wheel. The example above isn’t fanciful; it actually happened as part of an Audi press event at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January in Las Vegas.

Although the science-fiction concept of cars that smoothly carry us long distances while we play video games in the back is still at least a decade away, we already have cars that park themselves or automatically follow traffic ahead (so-called “adaptive cruise control”). Soon we’ll have automatic lane-changing, traffic-jam assist (the car will inch forward while your attention is elsewhere) and summon-by-cell valet parking.

At CES, Lexus showed its own self-driving LS600, bristling with a roof full of lasers, radar and sensors. Company officials described the car as a rolling test bed for advanced safety technology.

“We’re moving toward self-driving cars step by step,” says Scott Winchip, a regional president of chassis systems at major auto supplier Bosch. Indeed, incremental technologies such as lane-keeping assist (which can gently move you back into a lane when your attention wanders) and drowsiness alerts (a coffee cup icon lights on the dashboard when the system detects periods of inactivity followed by sharp corrections) are getting us used to letting the car take the wheel.

For wholesale adoption of self-driving cars, however, we need something of a tech revolution in car-to-car communications and adoption. A critical mass of cars will have to be equipped with sensors that take in a plethora of details about the traffic around them, as well as the terrain and other factors. And then there are the thorny regulatory and liability questions: Who’s responsible when all the fancy gear fails and the cars crash? Today, autonomous cars are legal only in Nevada, California and Florida, though other states are studying it.

It’s not just automakers working on self-driving cars. Tech giant Google has the largest fleet today. “When we put people in our self-driving cars, it’s amazing how quickly they get it,” says Chris Urmson, Ph.D., director of Google’s autonomous project. But Christina Simon, Ph.D., of Audi says it’s the car companies that ultimately will make this technology practical. “Google is doing good work, and they have millions of miles of on-road experience, but we bring an automaker’s know-how to the table,” she says.

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