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Fun Fun Fun on the Autobahn


If you’re at all a technophile, you’ve heard about the self-driving cars that Google is developing. But you may still be wondering how long you’ll have to wait to drive ride in one. The answer: probably not as long as you think.

Industry experts quoted by the Wall Street Journal predict that fully autonomous cars will be able to manage highway driving as soon as 2020 and will hit the streets in significant numbers as early as 2025. What’s driving these optimistic estimates isn’t gee-whiz technophilia, but rather a recognition that humans as a whole are really awful at driving. Indeed many of the safety features being rolled out by car manufacturers today will evolve into robo-cars:

Nissan Motor Corp.,  for example, says it’s working on a system that will take control of the steering if the driver fails to respond to an object, such as a parked car or pedestrian, detected by forward-looking radar sensors.

Other auto makers, and technology suppliers such as Continental are expanding the capability of so-called “active safety” systems already on board many new cars and trucks. These systems are built around sensors that can look ahead, to the side or even behind the car to detect obstacles.

Onboard computers can calculate whether the car they’re in is closing too fast with the objects outside, and use the cruise control to slow the car down, or order up a warning signal to the driver, or if the driver still doesn’t react, engage the brakes.

A more substantive piece at the Economist also looks into the timetable for driverless cars, as well as legal implications of the emerging technology. Some insurance companies, for instance, are already offering lower premiums to drivers who use assisted driver technologies. Experts predict that “manual driving” will be increasingly disincentivized,  but that shouldn’t be a big issue, as the technology is attractive enough on its own merits:

People who spend hours driving every day will get a chunk of their life back, to work, rest or play while they are on the road. Less congestion means less wasted fuel and fewer emissions. Volvo has already demonstrated a way of packing autonomous cars together in “road trains”, greatly increasing the capacity of roads while reducing traffic jams. The aerodynamic effects of road trains offer scope for even greater environmental gains: a 1995 study by the University of Southern California showed that they can improve fuel efficiency by up to 30%.

Given the increased attention that the technology is getting in the mainstream press, we would say that chances of something coming of this are pretty high. Read both articles in full, they’re worth your time.

[Driverless Google car image courtesy of Wikimedia.]

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  • Fat_Man

    I see driverless cars every time I go on the highway. There maybe people sitting behind the steering wheels, but they are very clearly not driving. They are texting, talking on the phone, reading the newspaper, putting on make-up, disciplining their children, dealing the the dog in front of them, etc. They are doing anything but driving.

    I think that getting computers to drive these driverless cars would be a big step forward.

    • Nick Bidler

      Really, driverless cars (getting flashbacks to ‘horseless carriages’) are only catching up to where humans want them to be. The ‘driver’ doesn’t want to drive to where they want to go.

  • Bruno_Behrend


    While is see this as inevitable, this will be the end of the auto industry.

    Once the first cars come out, the first laws will restrict human drivers in populated areas, then everywhere.

    Once that happens, there will be no need for a Mercedes, BMWs or “driving machines.”

    Life will be reduced to oatmeal in every sector, as the stifling, sclerotic, dead hand of soccer momism makes life unlivable for the adventurous or curious.

    I recommend the movies “The Bothersome Man” or even Stallone’s “Demolition Man” so that you can get a taste for just how awful such a future is.

    Space travel can’t come fast enough.

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