Sunday, March 18, 2012

Will Self-Driving Cars Be on the Road in 2017?

Volvo Car Group initiates a world unique Swedish pilot project with self-driving cars on public roads

One of the more common stereotypical futuristic technologies–aside from holograms and intelligent robots–is a self-driving vehicle of some sort. Usually something airborne, because who wouldn’t want to travel fast AND have great views while getting there? When I was a kid, I imagined when I was an adult, I would climb in my hover car, tell it where I wanted to go, and then sit back and relax as my intelligent flying car shuttled me there with no delay.

While I’m pretty certain that flying cars are never going to happen (at least not in my lifetime), self-driving vehicles are actually almost here. In fact, according to Volvo, we might start seeing them on the road as soon as 2017.

During the last few months, a handful of companies have stepped forward and announced that they have been working on automated driving programs and cars that can navigate and drive on their own. Apple, Google, Sony and Volvo are some of the loudest voices right now, although I expect many others are attempting the same things. Google has been test driving their vehicles for quite some time, but Volvo claims that it expects to have 100 self-driving cars on the road in the next two years. Sound crazy? Maybe not as much as you might think.

Think about it: cars that can use cruise control to maintain speed, park themselves and even help keep you in your lane are already pretty common. But actual self-driving requires a lot more redundancy and communication between all the different parts. Pretty well all of the specs and data I’ve read on self-driving cars indicates that most of these vehicles are packing a massive array of sensors that would make a NASA shuttle blush, and all of them have backups with more backups in order to protect human life.

“Making this complex system 99 percent reliable is not good enough,” Erik Coelingh, a Volvo technical specialist in autonomous driving told Mother Nature Network in an interview. “You need to get much closer to 100 percent before you can let self-driving cars mix with other road users in real-life traffic… It can’t be just one single magical component — it has to be a combination of all of them — teamwork!”

But, despite all the assurances, as I read about this for the article I found myself having an uncharacteristically Luddite moment. I don’t know that I am quite ready to trust a machine to be able to make the quick responses that are often required when driving in heavy traffic. How will my self-driving car react if the dumb human in front of me decides to slam on his brakes or swerve into my lane with no warning? While GPS technology is becoming more and more precise and reliable, and sensor technology has exploded in the last few years, I can’t help but be a little skeptical.

How about you? Would you trust a GPS and sensor-driven self-driving vehicle? Share your thoughts with me in the comments!

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