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Self-Driving Cars: Look, Ma, No Hands May Be Around the Corner

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Audi's TTS scrambled its way up Pike's Peak last year--without a driver. (Audi photo)FRANKFURT—In the not too distant future, will our cars take over the morning commute, auto piloting us to our jobs while we Facebook, tweet, and talk on our cell phones? That was one of central premises of a symposium held by Audi’s Urban Future Initiative September 12, on the eve of Frankfurt’s massive auto show.

In 1997, General Motors and the Department of Transportation ran a group of driver-free Buick LeSabres down a San Diego highway studded with magnetic guide strips. The test was deemed a success—the technology worked perfectly, and the cars ran neatly in a procession precisely 21 feet apart. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) got out of one of the cars and said, “Fabulous. I felt like I was at the Indy 500. Maybe it’s not ready for today, but I think it’s definitely what we’re looking at for California in the future.”

GM didn’t continue its autonomous driving experiment at that time, because there were problems—such as drivers’ ability to psychologically handle letting the car take charge. The transition back to manual control was an issue, and insurance liability issues loomed large. Drivers are responsible for accidents on their watch, but what if the car itself was in control?

Personally, I think that liability is still the big question, and it’s going to take longer to sort out than some of the optimists think. We all know that computers aren’t fail-safe, and where the buck stops in case of an accident has to be clearly established before autonomous driving goes forward.

Frank van Meel, Audi’s electrification chief, hit the problem squarely when he noted, “We can solve the technical issues. You will touch the steering wheel in certain zones to hand over command of the car, and then take it back again." He said that the Vienna Convention establishes the driver as the responsible person in an accident, “and this has to be discussed, obviously.” Should the automaker be the guilty party? That’s obviously a non-starter.

An autonomous VW Passat, developed with Stanford, bristles with technology. (VW photo)The New York Times wrote, “Policy makers and regulators have warned that the technology is now advancing so quickly that it is in danger of outstripping existing law, some of which dates back to the era of horse-drawn carriages. New laws will be required, they argue, if autonomous vehicles are to become a reality.” Amen to that.Some time in the late 1990s, I visited a Honda test center in Motegi, Japan and watched the shuttle cars employees drove around the campus park themselves. It was impressive, though in the years since self-parking has remained something of a parlor trick—I was given a recent demonstration of self-parking on the new Toyota Prius V, and to say it was buggy would be charitable.

But there is increasing evidence that the technology can work, and it doesn’t necessarily have to depend on expensive-to-install magnetic guide strips. The latest technology, explored by Audi, Volkswagen, and Google, among others, uses sophisticated computer controls and artificial intelligence software tied to radar, GPS and cameras to do pretty much what humans do when they drive cars.

Google, which has an autonomous driving team headed by a Stanford University scientist, lobbied for and won the legalization of self-driving on public roads in Nevada. It includes a provision to allow texting at the wheel—if the car is in control. According to Google, its cars have “driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research.”

Audi is most famous for having a TTS sports car climb Pike’s Peak all by itself last year. At the Future Symposium, a panel chaired by Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired, leaned heavily on the idea of self-guided cars. According to Anderson, our kids will marvel at the mundane phrase, “I drove my car to work.” Why? Because they won’t do the driving, they won’t own the car (they’ll borrow it through some form of car sharing), and they won’t go “to work”—they’ll work in all kinds of remote locations. According to Anderson, his children will be saying things like, “We worked while we traveled.”

A hands-free Buick on the road in 1997. (Department of Transportation photo)Jürgen Mayer, a Berlin-based architect, referred to our current behind-the-wheel behavior as “Shiva driving,” because you need to be a multi-armed Hindu god to have one hand holding the coffee cup, a second one texting, and a third actually steering the car. The car of the future will turn this dangerous behavior into a harmless pursuit, because it will be doing the driving. Mayer had images at the ready showing livable cities with fewer lanes devoted to cars (because traffic will move so efficiently) and far less light pollution because computer-guided cars won’t need headlights.

Steffen Walz, a German-born professor in Melbourne, envisions cities as “networks of nodes” and the car as “an interactive platform on wheels,” capable not only of driving itself but of connecting not only to those nodes but to the other cars around it. The car, he said, “will become part of the social network, and help transform cities in happier, friendlier places.” Push a few buttons on your cell
phone, and a hire car will drive out to pick you up. Punch another button and its color will change, or its dashboard layout will alter, to suit your driving profile.

Audi prefers to call it “piloted driving.” According to Ricky Hudi, the company’s head of electric and electronic development, the key to making the systems work is what he called “crowd intelligence.” The car gathers real-time traffic and intersection information, and it also takes in data from other cars—it knows where they are, and they know where it is and what it’s doing. “A car is smart, but many cars are smarter,” he said. Take a look at the Audi TTS that scaled Pike's Peak in this video:



Hudi compared automated driving to autopilot in an airplane, with the pilot handing over the controls for the boring parts. A slogan of the future, he said, will be, “When I don’t want to drive, my car will drive for me; when I want to have fun, I drive by myself.” He sees a future in which you’ll drive home, then say goodbye to your electric car, which will park itself, then plug in itself via cordless inductive charging. And Alasdair Ross of London’s Economic Intelligence Unit sees a future in which road surfaces will bristle with embedded sensors that can and will communicate your car, while you kick back, text, Skype, and talk on your cell phone.

Maybe. I love the idea of catching up on my reading, or even writing columns like this, while the car does the driving. But I’m not expecting to be doing it next year, or even by 2015. By 2020? That would be nice. GM, Audi, BMW, VW all have programs underway, and GM says its tech could be on the road by 2018. Add a couple years because everything takes longer than you expect, and that’s where we are, driving autonomously by 2020.
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