Driverless Cars Move Closer to Reality

Originally published January 17, 2013

By Ian Sherr and Mike Ramsey

Driverless cars are no longer the domain of science fiction.

Auto manufacturers such as Audi AG and Toyota Motor Co. are beginning to roll out advanced prototypes of vehicles that can drive themselves, adopting new technologies like self-parking, lane-departure correction and collision avoidance.

The idea of driverless cars has been around for decades. What’s changed is that the advanced computers and sensors needed to make this technology work is cheaper and more accessible.

That type of technology is already what powers devices like Google Inc.’s driverless prototype car, which began road tests in 2009. It uses various cameras, global positioning sensors and lasers to orient itself on the road, watch for obstacles and map its route. Google engineers say the device is a better driver than its human passengers.

“This [technology] is the starting path to the ultimate fully autonomous vehicle,” said Derek Kuhn, vice president of sales and marketing at Research In Motion Ltd.’s QNX software unit, which writes software for major auto manufacturers. Changes are also happening under the hood, he said, where various sensors placed in modules and separate computers throughout the car are beginning to be consolidated, allowing them to work together in quicker and more efficient ways.

Toyota showed off a car at the Consumer Electronics Show that can more fully take control from the driver in the event of emergencies.

Efforts are underway to have cars begin speaking to one another, alerting drivers in cars several lengths back of an obstacle in the road or even sensing that they are about to collide. There also is a push to rebuild traffic lights, parking spots and other mainstays of the modern road with smarter equivalents, which can plan and organize where various cars go.

Customers aren’t yet convinced. A poll conducted of 5,000 drivers last year by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Washington lobby group for the industry, found 72% of people thought driverless cars were a bad idea. In that group, more than half conceded that the technology might work, but it was years from being safe.

Audi recently unveiled a new self-driving technology that it says can allow a car to seek out a parking space in a garage, find it and park all without a driver in the seat.

Still, the group also found that people who had been exposed to safety features like forward-collision warning systems or blind-spot monitoring had a more favorable view, said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the alliance.

Ms. Bergquist said the main concern of the industry right now is establishing whether car makers or drivers are liable if there is a crash while one of these systems is in use.


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(Published January 17, 2013, in The Wall Street Journal.)