General Motors

Self-driving vehicles a step closer, say carmakers

Over the next decade, the industry will roll out more semi-autonomous features that will help motorists, and in some cases take full control of a vehicle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 August, 2012, 2:00am


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It's been more than half a century since some of the first concept cars boasting self-driving features were presented to the world and they're still not on the road. But many car executives say the industry is on the cusp of welcoming vehicles that make the idea of keeping both hands on the wheel an anachronism.

General Motors showed off "dream cars" in the late 1950s such as the Firebird II and Cadillac Cyclone with features carmakers are now starting to roll out in new models as the technology - based on sensors, lasers, radar systems, GPS, cameras and microchips - improves and becomes less costly.

While most industry officials don't envision a fully self-driving, or autonomous, vehicle before 2025, features such as adaptive cruise control or traffic jam assist that automatically slow or apply the brakes for a car in certain situations are already being introduced. And much like anti-lock brakes became the norm after initial resistance, the new technology will prepare drivers for a future where they are needed less.

"The whole concept of a car being able to drive itself is pretty profound," said Larry Burns, GM's former research and development chief and an adviser for Google's self-driving car project. "This is the most transformational play to hit the auto industry in 125 years."

The progress has been in the making for decades as GM's Firebird II, introduced in 1956, included a system to work with an electrical wire embedded in the highway to guide the car.

However, the pace of invention has quickened, with carmakers such as GM, Ford Motor, Toyota Motor and Volkswagen developing technologies to help drivers avoid accidents.

"In the same way we all used to travel on horses and now horses are entertainment, you could imagine automobiles driven by people becoming more entertainment," said Chris Urmson, the Google programme's technical head.

In a world where Nevada and Florida have already passed laws allowing the licensing of self-driving cars, the rush is on to make the job easier for drivers. "Once we have a car that will never crash, why don't we let it drive?" said Nady Boules, GM's director of autonomous technology development.

However, Boules and executives like him will have to win over a public that includes those who love to drive or simply wouldn't trust their lives to a robot. Others, like long-haul truckers, could resist the technology for fear of job losses.

"My mental model of trust in technology is a Windows blue screen of death. That's how much faith I have in PCs and computer systems," said Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab.

Reimer, whose group studies human behaviour in relation to road safety and has worked with BMW, Ford and Toyota, said people were terrible overseers of highly autonomous systems and a car that helps drivers rather than replaces them would be a better model.

J.D. Power and Associates found that 37 per cent of US consumers it surveyed in March were interested in autonomous driving technology, but only 20 per cent definitely or probably would buy it at an estimated cost of US$3,000. Consulting firm Accenture said last year that almost half of US and British consumers it polled would be comfortable in a self-driving car.

Bill Windsor, associate vice-president of consumer safety at insurer Nationwide Mutual, said the airline industry has had an autopilot feature for years, but people still man the cockpit. The same would be true for cars. "It's going to be a long time before we're going to feel comfortable turning over day-to-day decisions in driving to a computer," he said.

Costs must come down as well. A laser-based light detection and ranging system used by Google costs US$70,000 according to a study released this month by consulting firm KPMG and the Centre for Automotive Research.

For that reason, the roll-out over the next decade of more semi-autonomous features that assist drivers or take control of cars in only some cases is the path the industry is taking with the idea of preparing consumers for a future with fully driverless cars.

But some carmakers developing semi-autonomous features for their cars don't believe consumers will accept a future without human drivers. "The days of George Jetson getting in the vehicle, saying 'to the office' and then reading a newspaper, we don't envision for an awful long time," said Tom Baloga, BMW's US vice-president of engineering.