November 2, 2012

News & Features

Ceding the wheel: Self-driving cars are approaching fast

Los Angeles Times

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An illustration from Volvo shows how the 2013 V40 uses cameras and radar to monitor its surroundings for drivers. Volvo is implementing technologies such as adaptive cruise control, a lane-keeping aid, a road-sign reader and blind-spot detection. (Volvo)

Having a hard time parallel parking? Press a button on a touch screen and let the car park itself. Want to stay a safe distance from the car ahead while traveling 65 mph? Switch on adaptive cruise control and let a radar-linked computer handle the accelerator, slowing and speeding your vehicle to keep pace.

The assisted-driving technologies that just a few years ago seemed so futuristic are already here, bringing the auto industry one step closer to a George Jetson-like world where drivers may no longer have to drive.

"We are looking at science fiction becoming reality in a self-driving car," California Gov. Jerry Brown said last month when he signed a bill that would allow self-driving cars on the state's roads.

Although that might be some years off, automakers already are pouring millions of dollars into systems that hand more control of a vehicle to a complex network of sensors and computers. Features such as collision-avoidance systems, which sense a potential crash and trigger the brakes, or an alert that tells drivers they are wandering into adjacent lanes are making their way into more cars every year.

Industry, traffic and insurance experts believe that the advances are beginning to transform driving in a way that will reduce accidents and injuries.

"This is the future," says Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Vehicles are designed to protect people when crashes happen, but it would be even better to prevent crashes from happening altogether."

Google co-founder Sergey Brin says autonomous cars could be functional and safe for operation on public streets within a few years. (Think autopilot.) But the concept of handing over the steering wheel to a computer is making some people ill at ease.

"It freaks me out," says Michael Sigman, a writer and music publisher who lives in Los Angeles. "It is totally fascinating, and I would like to see how they work, but the idea of thousands and millions of people not driving around in these things is very scary."

Despite the uneasiness, there is some evidence that the early autonomous driving functions are already improving safety.

Volvo's City Safety, a low-speed forward-collision-avoidance system, is one feature that has been shown to be effective. The system is designed to help a driver avoid rear-ending another vehicle in slow-moving traffic.

The Highway Loss Data Institute compared insurance claims for the 2010 Volvo XC60 SUVs equipped with the system with claims for other 2009-10 midsize luxury SUVs that don't have the technology. The Volvos had 27 percent fewer property damage liability claims. They also had fewer claims for bodily injury.

Google believes that despite any mishaps with autonomous features working their way into vehicles now, completely self-driving vehicles will be safer and more convenient than cars driven by humans.

"There are a lot of opportunities for making cars safer, more convenient and more accessible," says Anthony Levandowski, head of Google's Driverless Car project. "The fact that you have to drive your car all the time is kind of a bug in the car itself."

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