Monday, January 14, 2008

Driverless Cars on Horizon

GM, parts suppliers, university engineers and other automakers all areworking on vehicles that could revolutionize short- and long-distance travel.And Tuesday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas GM Chief ExecutiveRick Wagoner will devote part of his speech to the driverless vehicles. "This is not science fiction," Larry Burns, GM's vice president for research anddevelopment, said in a recent interview.

The most significant obstacles facing the vehicles could be human rather thantechnical: government regulation, liability laws, privacy concerns and people'spassion for the automobile and the control it gives them. Much of the technologyalready exists for vehicles to take the wheel: radar-based cruise control,motion sensors, lane-change warning devices, electronic stability control andsatellite-based digital mapping. And automated vehicles could dramaticallyimprove life on the road, reducing crashes and congestion. If people areinterested. "Now the question is what does society want to do with it?" Burnssaid. "You're looking at these issues of congestion, safety, energy andemissions. Technically there should be no reason why we can't transfer to atotally different world."

GM plans to use an inexpensive computer chip and an antenna to link vehiclesequipped with driverless technologies. The first use likely would be onhighways; people would have the option to choose a driverless mode while theystill would control the vehicle on local streets, Burns said. He said thecompany plans to test driverless car technology by 2015 and have cars on theroad around 2018. Sebastian Thrun, co-leader of the Stanford University teamthat finished second among six teams completing a 60-mile Pentagon-sponsoredrace of driverless cars in November, said GM's goal is technically attainable.But he said he wasn't confident cars would appear in showrooms within a decade."There's some very fundamental, basic regulations in the way of that vision inmany countries," said Thrun, a professor of computer science and electricalengineering. The Defense Department contest, which initially involved 35 teams,showed the technology isn't ready for prime time. One team was eliminated afterits vehicle nearly charged into a building, while another vehicle mysteriouslypulled into a house's carport and parked itself.

Thrun said a key benefit of the technology eventually will be safer roads andreducing the roughly 42,000 U.S. traffic deaths that occur annually - 95 percentof which he said are caused by human mistakes. "We might be able to cut thosenumbers down by a factor of 50 percent," Thrun said. "Just imagine all thefunerals that won't take place." Other challenges include updating vehicle codesand figuring out who would be liable in a crash and how to cope with blown tiresor obstacles in the road. But the systems could be developed to tell motoristsabout road conditions, warn of crashes or stopped vehicles ahead and preventcollisions in intersections. Later versions of driverless technology couldreduce jams by directing vehicles to space themselves close together, almost asif they were cars in a train, and maximize the use of space on a freeway, hesaid. "It will really change society, very much like the transition from a horseto a car," Thrun said. The U.S. government has pushed technology to help driversavoid crashes, most notably electronic stability controls that help preventrollovers. The systems are required on new passenger vehicles starting with the2012 model year. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication and technology allowing carsto talk with highway systems could come next.Still in debate are how toaddress drivers' privacy, whether current vehicles can be retrofitted and howmany vehicles would be need the systems to develop an effective network. "Whereit shakes out remains to be seen but there is no question we see a lot ofpotential there," said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway TrafficSafety Administration.

Associated Press Writer Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to thisreport.(c) 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material maynot be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.