The most significant obstacles facing the vehicles could be human rather than technical: government regulation, liability laws, privacy concerns and people’s passion for the automobile and the control it gives them.
Much of the technology already exists for vehicles to take the wheel: radar-based cruise control, motion sensors, lane-change warning devices, electronic stability control and satellite-based digital mapping. And automated vehicles could dramatically improve life on the road, reducing crashes and congestion.
GM plans to use an inexpensive computer chip and an antenna to link vehicles equipped with driverless technologies. The first use likely would be on highways; people would have the option to choose a driverless mode while they still would control the vehicle on local streets, Burns said.
Larry Burns, GM’s vice president for research and development, said the company plans to test driverless car technology by 2015 and have cars on the road around 2018.
Sebastian Thrun, co-leader of the Stanford University team that finished second among six teams completing a 60-mile Pentagon-sponsored race of driverless cars in November 2007, said a key benefit of the technology eventually will be safer roads and reducing the roughly 42,000 U.S. traffic deaths that occur annually – 95 percent of which he said are caused by human mistakes.
Later versions of driverless technology could reduce jams by directing vehicles to space themselves close together [vehicle platooning and drafting], almost as if they were cars in a train, and maximize the use of space on a freeway, he said.
“We might be able to cut those numbers down by a factor of 50 percent,” Thrun said. “Just imagine all the funerals that won’t take place.”