The Toronto Star
August 30, 2013
The race to produce cars that drive themselves gained speed this week with several major automakers unveiling their latest technology.
General Motors Corp. (GM) said Wednesday it planned to introduce cars that can almost drive themselves before the end of this decade.
At a media event held to showcase its latest technology, GM said a system it calls "Super Cruise" would allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel on the highway.
GM and other carmakers such as Audi, BMW and Lexus already offer radar-guided cruise control that keeps their cars at a safe distance from other vehicles and even stops them before a crash.
They also have systems that warn a driver who is drifting out of the lane.
Now, GM's engineers have figured out how to get the vehicle to steer itself, the company said.
While a number of issues have yet to be worked out, the company said the technology could be available before the end of the decade.
The GM demonstration just outside Detroit came a day after Nissan Motor Co. said it would have a "fully autonomous" car on the market by 2020.
The technology will be installed on multiple vehicles and offered at "realistic prices," Nissan said at a demonstration in Irvine, CA, on Tuesday. One report said the company estimated it would add just $1,000 to the price of a car.
GM and Nissan aren't the only car makers working on self-driving vehicles, which are being promoted as making driving safer and easier. Ford, Toyota, Audi and others have also announced they are working on self-driving technology.
As well, technology giant Google has been promoting the concept of a self-driving car using technology developed by its engineers. The company released a video last year that showed a prototype vehicle driving a sight-impaired man around a neighborhood.
Sometimes called "robot cars," prototypes have been shown using things like sensors, cameras, scanners and in some cases GPS data to allow the vehicle to steer and stop itself.
While the concept may sound far-fetched, much of the basic technology is already in use, experts said. Cars already warn drivers when they're parking too closely, drifting out of their highway lane or in danger of collision, experts noted. And more is coming.
"I see this as more of an incremental change," Richard Wallace, director of transportation systems analysis for the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor, MI, said in an interview.
Still, Nissan appears to be the first to set a firm date to release a commercially available, fully autonomous vehicle.
"Lots of companies have announced roadmaps for getting there," Wallace said. "But most are aiming for 2020-2025."
Nissan pointed to its track record on developing the Leaf as proof it can meet a self-imposed deadline.
"In 2007, I pledged that by 2010 Nissan would mass market a zero-emission vehicle. Today, the Nissan Leaf is the best-selling electric vehicle in history," Nissan's chief executive officer Carlos Ghosn said in a statement.
"Now I am committing to be ready to introduce a new ground-breaking technology, Autonomous Drive, by 2020, and we are on track to realize it."
Nissan said it's working with several leading universities to develop the technology, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Oxford, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Tokyo.
A test site in Japan is expected to be ready by the end of fiscal 2014, the company also said.
Self-driving cars are expected to have broad appeal, especially to an aging baby boomer generation faced with losing the ability to drive safely, Wallace said.
Many automakers are competing to be seen as technologically savvy by a younger generation more interested in the latest mobile phone than in cars.
However, the concept of a self-driving car could still face some important roadblocks, including highway safety legislation.
In the United States, only three states have passed laws permitting the use of autonomous vehicles on public roads: Nevada, Florida and California. Safety regulators are generally in favor of the technology, providing it can be proven to be safer than human drivers, Wallace said.
One concern is drivers may become complacent and stop paying attention.
Also, it could be some time before self-driving vehicles are the norm, given that the average age of vehicles currently on the road is nearly 12 years old, he said. That means most of the new cars being sold today will still be around in 2024.
In Canada, the average age of vehicles on the road is 9.3 years, according to DesRosiers Automotive Consultants.
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