CA’s automated cars ready to roll
With remarkable speed, California’s top technologists have reached a breakthrough point in their development of automated cars. Automated vehicles from seven companies have hit Golden State freeways, with more to come.
Dramatizing the developments, one firm’s team of engineers and scientists recently kicked off a historic road trip in San Francisco, as the Bay Area’s ABC 7 reported:
“Engineers and cutting edge scientists from Delphi Automotive decked out a fleet of Audi SUVs with cameras, lasers, and radar all to teach the nearly $53,000 luxury car to drive itself … on a history-making cross-country trip from San Francisco to New York. It’ll cover 3,500 miles in about 10 days.”
Although Delphi has focused on achieving automated travel by applying technology to cars made elsewhere, Google and Tesla have reached an advanced stage in automated cars constructed with their own software and hardware.
The firms have concentrated on two basic types of transportation. Some work has centered around “self-driving” technology, wherein the person behind the wheel would not have to operate the car in order for it to drive. Other efforts have pursued “driverless” technology. More radical than self-driving, driverless technology would free travelers from having to occupy a driver’s position at all.
Self-driving, but not driverless
Tesla chief Elon Musk raised eyebrows with an announcement that went beyond driverless cars. Musk revealed that, this summer, “a software update — not a repair performed by a mechanic — would give Tesla’s Model S sedans the ability to start driving themselves, at least part of the time, in a hands-free mode that the company refers to as autopilot,” the New York Times reported.
Translation: Motorists would be able to experience “driverless” personal transportation in cars they already own or have access to.
Yet Musk’s remarks weren’t the first to put skeptics on notice that the future was coming whether they were ready or not. Google itself beat him to the punch earlier this year. According to the Times:
“Chris Urmson, director of self-driving cars at Google, raised eyebrows at a January event in Detroit when he said Google did not believe there was currently a ‘regulatory block’ that would prohibit self-driving cars, provided the vehicles themselves met crash-test and other safety standards.”
“A spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration responded at the time that ‘any autonomous vehicle would need to meet applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards’ and that the agency ‘will have the appropriate policies and regulations in place to ensure the safety of these types of vehicles.'”
Making drivers obsolete
In comments calculated to make headlines, Musk recently opined that, eventually, humans would be prohibited from driving by law for safety’s sake.
Some activists have maintained the opposite view. In a letter to the California DMV, Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog wrote:
“To express our concern that Google and others with a vested interest in developing ‘autonomous vehicle technology,’ also known as driverless cars, are pushing the Department of Motor Vehicles into promulgating rules regulating the public use of these vehicles on California’s highways that are inadequate to protect our safety. Safety issues are paramount, of course, but there are other substantial questions about privacy, data security and insurance that are also raised by driverless cars.”
Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 1298. It formally legalized autonomous cars and required the DMV to “adopt regulations as soon as practicable,” no later than January of this year, “and to hold public hearings on the adoption of any regulation applicable to the operation of an autonomous vehicle without the presence of a driver inside the vehicle.”
But the DMV missed that deadline because of safety concerns. The Los Angeles Times editorial board tallied the public’s many fears associated with the loss of human control over cars:
“DMV has to grapple with more difficult questions. Should autonomous cars be allowed on the road with no one in them capable of taking the wheel — empty, perhaps, or with passengers in the back seat drinking or watching a movie? Should the vehicles be required to have steering wheels and pedals, or will a ‘stop’ button suffice? In theory, driverless cars could significantly reduce the number of collisions, as 90 percent of accidents are caused by human error. (The Google car won’t text and drive, for example.) What happens, however, if the car malfunctions or causes an accident? Would the carmaker be liable? Would the passenger be liable, even if he or she didn’t operate the vehicle?”
Evidently well aware of such concerns, Google recently obtained a patent for its driverless car that could see external airbags deployed to protect pedestrians from any unforeseen difficulties.
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