Self-driving vehicles may arrive sooner than expected

A car that drives itself seems like the stuff of fanciful daydreams or science fiction movies, but it is only a few years away.

Tech giant Google continues to test its self-driving car around Silicon Valley and this spring showed models without a steering wheel or pedals.

Cadillac announced in September it will introduce a nearly self-driving car in 2017, featuring a “super cruise” feature that allows hands- and feet-free driving on both freeways and in stop-and-go traffic.

Google 2014 prototype (Google)

Elon Musk of electric-car maker Tesla said in a February interview with Bloomberg his company would be “the first company to market with significant autonomous driving function in the vehicles.”

So when will we see widespread use of self-driving cars?

“I think the answer is sooner than you previously thought,” said Nick Bell, chief information officer of Global Product Development at General Motors. Bell spoke at a panel on autonomous vehicles at the People & Technology Forum 2014 at Georgia Tech earlier this month.

Google has been testing a small fleet of self-driving cars around its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. These are conventional vehicles modified to be self-driving. In May, however, it showed a prototype with no steering wheel or pedals.

Ride-sharing service Uber has said it expects all of its cars to be driverless eventually, with the emphasis — perhaps — on eventually.

Bell and other experts on the Georgia Tech panel also said the question of when depends on what is meant by “self-driving” — Google’s no-steering-wheel vision; the vision of Musk and other auto executives of a car with a “pilot” but which can operate in “autopilot mode” for long periods; or something else.

Automakers, their suppliers, telecommunications giants like Verizon and AT&T, and governments are all working to make some vision of autonomous cars a reality.

Many of the parts and pieces of the technology needed to make them commercially available are already in use and technology may be the lowest of the hurdles on the way to a viable commercial market.

Some cars already can brake themselves, know when another vehicle is near, stay connected to communications networks or park themselves.

In exchange for potential price discounts, insurance companies are getting drivers to track their driving with small dongles connected to the car diagnostic port.

Some cars have their own WiFi hotspots, and Apple wants to brings its mobile operating system to the dashboard.

Jeff Leddy, chief executive of Verizon Telematics, speaking at People & Technology Forum 2014 in Atlanta. (Jack Lail / News Sentinel)

Describing a car as a “computer on wheels,” Jeff Leddy, chief executive of Verizon Telematics, noted that cars already can have 50 to 70 computers, with higher-end vehicles boasting even more. Leddy was a keynote speaker at the Georgia Tech conference.

“I think we’re going to see drastic changes in how we drive,” Leddy said. He and others see benefits and cost savings in autonomous vehicles, but he said the main push behind the rush toward self-driving cars is Google. “Google is a real threat to OEMs (auto manufacturers),” he said.

The technology company has been moving much more rapidly than traditional car makers. Google, which announced its self-driving car effort in 2010, has plans to build 100 prototypes of its cars without steering wheels and pedals.

May 27, 2014 video posted by Google about Fully autonomous driving. Google's self-driving car developers said fully autonomous driving has always been the goal of the project, because they think this could improve road safety and help lots of people who can't drive.

“All major manufacturers have announced some level of autonomy by 2020,” Leddy said. “Within five years, it is likely we’ll be seeing self-driving cars on the road but with a driver.”

He pointed to five key benefits:

* Safety. The reduction of accidents and fatalities alone is enough justification for the effort, he said;

* Significant fuel savings. About 20 percent of driving is spent looking for a parking space;

* Environmental benefits;

* Productivity; and

* Convenience.

Leddy, Bell and others on the panel see the move to self-driving cars as a transition taking perhaps 20 to 30 years.

There are 254 million vehicles on U.S. roads and only about 7 percent are connected. Owners are keeping cars for a decade or more. GM’s Bell said the switch to driverless cars will have to be a progression because only about 16 million new cars are sold each year.

Indeed, getting drivers to re-imagine their love affair with the car may be one of the higher adoption barriers. “I don’t think people will trade in their car to read the newspaper,” said Bruce Walker, a psychology professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing.

Walker said there could be strong benefits for young drivers using self-driving cars, as well as senior drivers and the visually impaired. Others on the panel predicted the cost-benefit analysis for companies owning fleets of vehicles — such as long-haul freight trucks that wouldn’t have to stop for sleep breaks — would be extremely attractive.

One thing that might drive adoption is government incentives. John Avery, who heads Panasonic’s Automotive Innovation Center in Atlanta, said high-speed lanes for self-driving cars would be a strong incentive for his daily commute.

The whole concept of vehicle ownership might be disrupted. With no driving, would using an Uber-type ride-sharing service become more popular? Some surveys already show that given a choice between a smartphone and a car, young people say they would choose the smartphone.

While the gee-whiz benefits of autonomous vehicles seem substantial, so do the golly-gee challenges. Those include a range of legal questions starting with liability issues and including legal and ethical challenges involving how the vehicles are programmed to react when confronted with a range of “bad choices.” That scenario will undoubtedly happen, at least during the transition years when bad drivers are still behind the wheel.

This March 28, 2012 video shows where the Google Self-Driving Project was two years ago. Google launched the project in 2010. In this video Steve Mahan took a test drive along a carefully programmed route. Google organized this test as a technical experiment, but called it a promising look at what autonomous technology may deliver

Paul Daunno, lead product development manager for AT&T’s Internet of Things Solutions, also pointed to thorny privacy issues and the possibility of the car becoming just another device that can be hacked.

Then there are economic issues. If self-driving cars reduce accidents, what happens to body shops and the after-market makers of parts? What is the future of truck drivers? Will the vehicles be too expensive except for the most affluent?

Those questions aside, Bell suggested you might look in “closed communities” — such as retirement and golf communities — to get the first glimpse of widespread use of self-driving vehicles.

An example? The golf cart might be replaced by a self-driving vehicle.

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