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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 roads. But many auto 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 automakers 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 as anti-lock brakes became the norm after initial resistance, these new technologies 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.”
Larry Burns, GM's former research and development chief and an adviser for Google's self-driving car project, said: “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. Three years later, the rocket-like Cyclone boasted an autopilot system that steered the car and radar in front nose cones that warned of a collision and automatically applied the brakes.
However, the pace of invention has quickened, with such automakers as GM, Ford, Toyota and Volkswagen developing technologies to help drivers avoid accidents. Some even envision a future where today's cars are more amusement.
Chris Urmson, technical head of Google's self-driving car project, said: “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.”
MAKING DRIVERS’ JOBS EASIER
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. For many, the ultimate goal is to take the steering wheel totally out of consumers' hands and eliminate accidents altogether.
Nady Boules, GM's director of autonomous technology development, said: “Once we have a car that will never crash, why don't we let it drive?”
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.
‘BLUE SCREEN OF DEATH'
Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab, said: “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.”
Reimer, whose group studies human behavior in relation to transportation safety and has worked with BMW, Ford and Toyota, said people are terrible overseers of highly autonomous systems and a car that helps drivers rather than replaces them would be a better model.
JD Power and Associates found 37 percent of US consumers it surveyed in March were interested in autonomous driving technology, but only 20 percent definitely or probably would buy it at an estimated price of $3000 (R25 000). Consulting firm Accenture said in 2011 that almost half of US and British consumers it polled would be comfortable in a self-driving car.
ESTABLISHING THE INFRASTRUCTURE
Even if the industry eventually wins the hearts and minds of most consumers, it also must establish the infrastructure that supports self-driving cars, including not only the technology but the necessary legal and liability frameworks - things that may takes years to put in place.
Bill Windsor, associate vice president of consumer safety at insurer Nationwide Mutual, pointed out the airline industry has had an autopilot feature for years, but people still man the cockpit. The same will be true for cars.
“It's going to be a long time before we're going to feel comfortable turning over all the day-to-day decisions in driving to a computer,” he said.
Costs must come down as well. For instance, the laser-based Light Detection and Ranging system used by Google costs $70 000.
For that reason, the rollout 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.
John Hanson, Toyota US national manager for environmental, safety and quality issues, explained: “Making people comfortable with autonomous driving is actually the difficult part - building the car is the easy bit.”
Toyota has two autonomous car programmes, one in Japan and the other in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
'GEORGE JETSON' DAYS NOT CLOSE
Even some automakers developing semi-autonomous features for their cars don't believe consumers will accept a future without human drivers.
Tom Baloga, BMW North America vice-president of engineering, said: “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.
“We will always be the ultimate driving machine,” he said, adding that there will be times when bored drivers stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic will turn over control of their cars.
BMW has worked on autonomous technology for more than a decade.
Others developing autonomous technologies include Honda , Hyundai, Daimler, Nissan and Volvo, as well as suppliers, technology firms and universities. Chip giant Intel Corp created a $100 million fund in February to invest in future auto technology.
A KPMG analyst said: “The industry appears to be on the cusp of revolutionary change, engendered by the advent of autonomous or 'self-driving' vehicles - and it may be happening sooner than you think.”
GM, for instance, believes semi-autonomous cars will be available by 2015 with more sophisticated self-driving systems by the end of the decade. Cadillac is testing a feature dubbed “Super Cruise” that is capable of fully automatic steering, braking and lane centering in certain highway driving that could be ready for production by mid-decade.
Meanwhile Bill Ford sees semi-autonomous driving technology by 2025 with driver-initiated autopilot systems, as well as the ability to reserve parking spots ahead of your destination in a linked network, with fully autonomous cars following after that.
Ford said in June at an event in California's Silicon Valley: “There's a lot of moving parts to all of this, but it's almost limitless in terms of what we can do.”
Ford's 2013 Fusion mid-sized car includes a lane-keeping aid system, an active park assist function, adaptive cruise control and collision warning. - Reuters