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Automakers: No-driver cars need laws

2014-01-10 12:15

INNOVATIVE TESLA S: Soon many cars will be powered by batteries, hydrogen or solar power. Image: Tesla

LAS VEGAS, Nevada - Hydrogen and solar-powered vehicles are on the streets. So are cars that can get you through stop-and-go traffic while you sit back and send texts from behind the wheel.

Cars are even using radar, ultrasonic waves and cameras to jump into the passing lane and get around slowpokes. Sure, all of these technologies are still in the testing phase, but that hasn't stopped automakers and technology companies from showing off a new paradigm of driving at the International CES gadget show here this week.


It's a world in which you no longer grip the wheel with excitement but rather relax with a book or movie as your car chauffeurs you to your destination. That was the point of a simulation by Delphi Automotive, an auto parts and technology supplier to major manufacturers, among them Ford, GM and Volvo.

The scenario, using a stationary but souped-up Tesla Model S, imagines "autonomous driving lanes" much like car-pool lanes today. The company imagines that vehicles might someday enter these lanes and then run on auto-pilot. The feat is possible today with a mixture of technology that keeps cars inside lanes and adaptive cruise control that matches a car's speed to the vehicle ahead of it.

While in the autonomous lane, the car's window glass frosts up and functions disabled for the driver — such as video playing from a mini projector — turn on. The driver can pursue other activities such as surfing the Web or perhaps taking a nap. When the car is approaching the required freeway exit it becomes increasingly persistent, demanding the driver take back control: the video player stops; a female voice intones "Place both hands on the steering wheel and look ahead in the driving direction." Finally, the seat vibrates and a driver-facing camera makes sure the human is looking at the road. The driver taps a steering-wheel knob, takes control, and drives on.


The experience is similar to airline pilots who grab the controls for take-off and landing but let a computer do the rest. Jim Travers, autos associate editor with Consumer Reports magazine, said: "These technologies exist and automakers assure us they're ready to go. It's really not that far off." Though technological innovation isn't an issue, there are many speed bumps on the road to this envisioned future. Humans must accept the safety and reliability of such systems, governments must pass legislation and the insurance industry needs to draw up guidelines to answer tricky questions.

Such as who'd be at fault in the event of a crash. Glen de Vos, vice-president of engineering with Delphi's electronics and safety division, admitted: "That's one of the biggest issues for autonomous technology. The legal environment has to keep pace."
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