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The Race to Build Self-Driving Cars

Futurists have been promising motorists self-driving cars for decades. But like functioning hover boards and self-lacing shoes, autonomous cars have always been little more than a sci-fi pipe dream. Until recently, that is. Advancements in sensory technologies and the addition of high-powered processing systems to cars provide hope for a future in which vehicles will drive themselves.

The goal is to reduce traffic accidents and gridlock while improving fuel efficiency. And being able to kick back and take a nap once in a while wouldn’t be bad either.

Automakers such as Cadillac and Ford, and tech giants such as Google are working on autonomous vehicle programs that, if all goes well, could allow you to be comfortably chauffeured down the interstate by your car without ever touching the wheel. The surprising thing is that the ability to create an autonomous car is completely within the realm of possibility when you consider the types of technologies automakers are currently cramming into their vehicles.

Cameras with Smarts

Automakers, especially luxury brands, have been equipping their vehicles with cameras for several years. But until relatively recently, in-car cameras were predominantly used as a means to avoid collisions. In this application, the car’s camera, which is located on or around the tailgate, switches on when you pop the transmission into reverse. The camera then begins streaming a live image to your infotainment system’s display or on a small screen in the rearview mirror.

More recently, automakers have begun adding helpful overlays to these systems that give drivers a better idea of the distance between the car and an object. Ford’s backup cameras, for instance, now come with a color-coded guide divided into green, yellow and red sections that’s displayed over the camera feed. As you back up, images in the viewfinder move through the green and yellow portions of the guide. When you get to the red section, you’ll know you’re getting too close to an object.

Ford has also added an outline to the camera’s on-screen image that marks the direction your car is headed as you back up. Turn the wheel to the left and the outline moves to the right, and vice versa.

Backup cameras have become so effective at helping to prevent backing into things (and people) that the U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed a federal mandate that would require all cars be equipped with a rear-facing camera by 2014.

Rearview 2.0

Your car’s tailgate isn’t the only place automakers are putting cameras. Ford and Mercedes have begun placing them in their vehicles’ rear-view mirrors. But these cameras aren’t meant for your use. Instead, they are used to ensure that your car stays within its lane.

“We have cameras in the car that are able to see where the lane is and are able to identify cars coming on the other side,” explained Sasha Simon, head of advanced product planning at Mercedes-Benz USA. If the system detects you’re moving out of your lane it will automatically vibrate your steering wheel.

The lane-departure warning system actually reads the lane markers on the roadway, which, unfortunately, also limits the system’s effectiveness. If, for instance, you’re traveling on a snow-covered roadway, the cameras will be unable to pick up the lane markings, meaning your vehicle’s cameras can’t read them.

But that doesn’t mean the system will go haywire trying to find a lane marking. Instead, it will simply cease functioning until the lane markings are available again.

Bye, Bye, Blind Spots

In addition to front- and rear-facing cameras, today’s high-tech cars are loaded with all manner of radar and ultrasonic sensors. Such cars as Cadillac’s XTS feature radar in their rear panel that’s capable of detecting oncoming traffic as you back out of parking spaces, which means you’ll never have to guess if a car is coming or not. When the system picks up an incoming car, it will alert you via a chime or by vibrating the driver’s seat.

Similarly, Ford’s BLIS, or Blind Spot Information System, is capable of detecting vehicles in your car’s blind spot and alerting you accordingly. “If there is a vehicle in the adjacent lane in your blind spot, BLIS will light up an icon in the side view mirrors,” explained Michael Kane, Ford’s vehicle engineering supervisor for driver assistance technology. “It’s a yellow light that lights up based on what side the vehicle is on.”

Automakers aren’t satisfied with just being able to tell you when your car is too close to a vehicle or another object. They want to physically move your car away from trouble. Mercedes’ system can automatically apply the brakes on one side of the car, pulling you back into your lane. This lane guidance will react more aggressively if it detects that your car is drifting across a solid line rather than a striped line. It also can tell the difference between intentional steering wheel inputs, such as aggressive cornering, and unintentional movements, such as an unscheduled nap.

Alternatively, Ford’s system literally moves the steering wheel to force the driver back into his lane. Ford’s Kane says the decision to use steering rather than the brakes allows for a smoother feel. “When you hit the brakes, you are braking on one side so you have that drag, and you can be more precise using the steering wheel rather than the brakes.”

According to Mercedes’ Simon, the company will begin using a steering-based system similar to Ford’s in its next lane-departure system.

Cruise Control 2.0

One of the most prevalent semi-autonomous systems in today’s vehicles is parallel parking assist. According to Kane, Ford’s system, which is available on 10 vehicles, uses hypersonic sensors that help calculate the size of an available space and your distance from it to automatically steer and park your car. Toyota offers a similar system that not only lets you parallel park, but can back you into a spot between two cars as well.

While parallel parking is cool, next-generation cruise control systems can save your life. They now work without requiring the driver to hit the brakes every time a slower-moving car crosses or pulls in front of you.

For instance, Infiniti’s Intelligent Cruise Control (Full-Speed Range) uses front-mounted laser sensors to detect when a vehicle is in front of you. If you set the cruise control to 60 mph and a car moving at 50 mph pulls in front of you and is within the range of your vehicle’s laser sensors, your Infiniti will automatically slow down. What’s more, the Intelligent Cruise Control allows you to determine the distance you’d like to keep between cars in front of you, from between one and three car lengths.

Both Mercedes and Infiniti can automatically begin applying your vehicle’s brakes when it detects a crash is imminent. Infiniti’s Distance Control Assist uses a vehicle’s front-facing laser sensors to

determine if you are approaching a car that is slowing down too quickly. If you don’t attempt to slow down, the car will begin releasing the throttle. If that doesn’t get you to begin slowing down, the system will automatically apply your vehicle’s brakes to bring you to a full stop.

What’s Next: Completely Self-Driven

So what do these semi-autonomous technologies mean for the future of self-driving cars? It depends on whom you ask. Mercedes’ Simon says his company’s vehicles evoke a strong emotional response with their customers, which strengthens when they get behind the wheel. Because of that, he says, Mercedes has no real interest in a self-driving car.

Cadillac, on the other hand, is actively working on an autonomous driving system. Known as Super Cruise, it combines all of the semi-autonomous technologies available in Cadillac’s current fleet of vehicles and bolsters them with further improvements, allowing a car to cruise down the highway on its own. Cadillac, however, is quick to point out that the system can be fully defeated by user input. In its initial announcement, Cadillac said Super Cruise could be available by mid-decade. If that estimate holds true, you could be reading an e-book while your car drives you down the interstate within the next three years.

Swedish automaker Volvo is also working on autonomous driving tech. The company recently partnered with several companies and research organizations, including Ricardo, to successfully test a caravan of self-driving cars on public roads across Spain. The test, part of the SARTRE project, featured a manually operated lead truck and four autonomous vehicles.

Each of the vehicles communicated using wireless technology and were able to mimic all of the movements of the lead truck, including changing lanes and driving at speeds of up to 50 mph without incident. According to Eric Chan, Ricardo’s chief engineer for the SARTRE project, what’s especially interesting about the Volvo test is that it was completed using technology that is either already in, or close to reaching, production.

Google Gets Serious

Of course, no discussion of self-driving cars would be complete without mentioning the 800-pound gorilla: Google. The search giant first announced its intentions to develop the technology needed to create an autonomous car in 2010 (shown above), in order to make driving safer and more enjoyable. Since then Google says its vehicles have driven more than 200,000 miles across various types of terrain and road conditions using a system with the processing equivalent of a desktop computer.

Most recently, the company showed a video of a blind man driving one of the company’s vehicles around a suburban neighborhood, stopping at a dry cleaner and picking up tacos at a drive-through before heading home. The car did, however, need some assistance. Before shooting the video, Google worked in conjunction with local police and sent out a manually driven car to map the route and provide information on traffic conditions in the area.

Making it Affordable (And Legal)

No matter how much the technology is refined, there are still several roadblocks that may prevent the widespread adoption of self-driving cars. According to Peter Stone, University of Texas professor and fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, the biggest obstacle is cost.

A survey conducted by J.D. Power and Associates showed that 37 percent of respondents would be willing to use a self-driving system. When told that they would have to pay an estimated $3,000 more for the tech, though, that number dropped to 20 percent.

Still, J.D. Power and Associates’ Michael Van Nieuwkuyk sees that as a fairly large number of interested consumers. “If you consider it’s $3,000, 20 percent is pretty impressive,” he argued. “The general consumer recognizes that one, this needs to be thoroughly vetted to make sure this is safe, and then there are the liability issues that need to be sorted through.”

Another challenge, Stone explained, is the lack of legislation dealing with autonomous vehicles. So far, only a handful of states including Nevada have any kind of laws on the books pertaining to self-driving cars. But that problem may be resolved sooner rather than later. California’s State Senate has already approved a bill dealing with self-driving cars, and more states are sure to follow. California State Sen. Alex Padilla, the bill’s architect, said he introduced the legislation because he believes autonomous vehicles “are the next logical step in automotive development.

“Autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to significantly reduce traffic fatalities and injuries. It also has the potential to increase fuel efficiency, reduce traffic congestion and increase highway capacity,” Padilla said.

Also up for debate is the question of liability when an autonomous vehicle is involved in an accident. “I believe that liability in the area of autonomous vehicles would be addressed by the current system of tort and common law governing product defects,” Padilla said.

Bottom Line

So when can you expect to kick back and relax while your car drives you around town? Assuming automakers successfully build upon current technologies and are able to accelerate artificial intelligence to crunch all of this real-time data being gathered, a commercial-grade self-driving car may be ready to hit the road as soon as 2020.

Realistically, however, it may be a bit longer as equipment prices become more reasonable and federal and state rules governing self-driving cars are put in place.

So keep your eyes on the road for now, but it won’t be that long until you won’t need to.