Self-driving cars


They could make driving safer by eliminating human error


All the major automakers, Google, Stanford University


Five to 10 years

If you believe the hype, it would seem that self-driving cars are right around the corner.

Google has been testing them for several years, and states like California and Nevada have authorized them for use on roads – although only with a human behind the wheel. Autonomous-driving features, such as systems that recognize hazards and brake on their own to avoid collisions, are already on the market.

But the fantasy of a car that automatically steers you to work while you read the morning paper or catch a few extra Zs is still many years away.

“Autonomous driving is not going to mean jump in the car, push a button, say ‘Take me to grandma’s house’ and go to sleep,’ ” said James Bell, head of consumer affairs for GM. “That may come someday, but not soon.”

It is coming, though. Automakers and universities are laying important groundwork for the technology now by testing automated systems, working with regulators and earning the trust of drivers who are uncomfortable handing over the wheel to a computer.

Autonomous cars could save energy, cut down on accidents and ease traffic congestion by traveling at uniform speeds. But even if the cars can vastly improve driver safety, the technology still faces some tricky balancing acts.

Before fully automated cars can relieve us from driving forever, manufacturers and researchers must work with governments to establish standards and laws – a challenge that may prove more difficult than any algorithm.

The technology works by outfitting cars with an array of sensors, cameras and radar systems, then applying artificial intelligence to help the cars know where to go. The vehicles must gather large amounts of information about surrounding obstacles, calculate risks and make split-second decisions about what to avoid — and even the best way to crash if necessary.

Automakers already are rolling out assisted-driving features that help take over tasks such as parallel parking or navigating stop-and-go traffic. Audi is testing a feature that can take command during an emergency to prevent a crash, but it’s still a far cry from fully automated driving.

“Is the car taking over? No,” said Filip Brabec, director of product management for Audi. “We make it very clear to the driver that you have to keep on driving. This is just a support function. You can definitely override it.”

Google has received the most attention for its early forays into driverless vehicles. The tech giant is testing its own cars on 60 acres in California’s Central Valley. And almost every major car manufacturer is collaborating with universities, and even among themselves, to develop automated-driving technology.

The real test will come when self-driving cars finally hit the market. Will wary consumers steer clear? Or will motorists, weary of stressful commutes, embrace them as computerized chauffeurs?

“People will maybe be a little slow to trust (the cars) initially. Then they’ll be a little fast to trust the cars too quickly,” said Stanford engineer J. Christian Gerdes, who worked with a team of graduate students on an automated race car. “I think neither is really deserved.”