The Autonomous Evolution

Driverless in the Fast Lane

Who's ready to give up the wheel?
This summer, drivers in Nevada could find themselves behind cars with special red license plates bearing a symbol of the future. The plates are issued by the state's Department of Motor Vehicles for self-driving cars. In 2011, at Google's behest, Nevada legislated the first framework for the testing of such cars. Two "operators" will always be onboard to monitor and even override the autonomous systems. Google was the first to apply for certification of its fleet of drone Priuses, but other automakers and supplier firms will join this marching-band-without-a-drum-major parading across the Silver State in real-world testing on diverse roads through changing conditions.

Nevada DMV director Bruce Breslow says that one day, fully autonomous vehicles will provide mobility to those who are currently restricted, like the blind and victims of Parkinson's Disease. "That's the excitement of the technology that we wanted to see evolve," he says. And it turns out other states want the same thing: Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma, California, and Hawaii have passed or initiated legislation like Nevada's.

To enthusiasts, the various terms for autonomous vehicles are about as welcome as news that Santa's sleigh is trailing smoke. The steering wheel will have to be pried from your cold dead hands, right? But everybody endures interludes when it would be nice to freely message your office or home instead of being mired uselessly in traffic. By combining and refining radar, lasers, navigation, and artificial intelligence with electromechanical components, scientists and engineers are rapidly perfecting cars that accelerate, steer, and brake by themselves, avoiding obstacles and staying all Miss Manners about lane discipline. Google's April Fool's spoof, a blog and video about its self-driving NASCAR Ford Fusion, seemed entirely plausible -- all the more so because it's impossible to imagine Google cofounder Sergey Brin, who sat inside, really doing a burnout. The process of reducing the driver's workload, which started in earnest with the 1940 Oldsmobile's Hydra-Matic transmission, has finally soft-landed.

The prospect of self-driving cars suggests many things, ranging from the benignity of new freedom to the ominousness of constant surveillance. In 2010, a self-driving Audi TTS climbed Pikes Peak, rendering future members of the Unser family unnecessary; Audi of America product planning chief Filip Brabec foresees the day, perhaps by 2030, when the driver might turn over all functions to the autonomous system, even in heavy traffic. "I think what we can do over time is, we can improve your productivity and provide you with infotainment that you might enjoy," Brabec says. "When you get somewhere that's nice and curvy, with beautiful scenery, then of course you grab the steering wheel and drive yourself."

Cars will communicate with each other and the infrastructure: roadways, traffic signals, bridges. According to Google -- which declined to provide a spokesperson for this story but has posted several press releases -- this new level of driver assistance will improve safety and traffic flow. Brin has written that "the most important thing computers can do in the next ten years is drive cars." He and his Google imagineers were impressed by what they saw in the DARPA Grand Challenge, a series of autonomous-vehicle races organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency between 2004 and 2007. The company hired several of those scientists for its own program. As the head of R&D at General Motors before his 2009 retirement, Larry Burns was involved in the DARPA Challenge. Now a consultant to Google, Burns flies monthly between Michigan and California to monitor development. He expects autonomy to be popular with consumers because it will give back their commuting time -- an average of fifty-two minutes a day. "It'll be the most transformational technology I will have ever touched in my career because of how it will change the end-vehicle experience for the consumer," he says. The day is coming when the driver "can actually sit back and do something else safely -- texting, e-mail, maybe watch a video. That's pretty compelling."

This vision of the future entails the development of what Burns calls "the mobility Internet, the system that coordinates the movement of everything: people and goods." With increased car-sharing, it would be possible to better utilize the capacity of roadways and parking infrastructure. Burns's last major project at GM was the EN-V, the electric networked vehicle shown at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. The transport modules, which look like wasps' heads on wheels, can be linked together to achieve ultimate efficiencies in aerodynamics, fuel economy, and highway carrying capacity. "I can't predict when this will happen. All I'm telling you is the technological building blocks are there."

For some skeptics, there are questions, the first of which concerns the basic reliability of autonomous systems. "What if the technology grid goes down?" asks John Bowman, National Motorists Association spokesman. "Does that represent a safety hazard for these vehicles? How do you recover from that?" Not only does Bowman wonder whether self-driving cars can successfully negotiate a patch of black ice, but also what the human driver ultimately gives up besides the steering wheel. If you stop three times a day for gelato, will the car alert your nutritionist? "It would essentially amount to 24/7 surveillance while you're in your car," Bowman says.

Autonomous cars stretch a new canvas before designers. "You would probably have a different-shaped vehicle, one that is intended to be close," says Stewart Reed, who chairs Art Center College of Design's transportation design department. Conventional transparent openings might not be necessary -- for the sake of privacy, they would be undesirable -- so virtual reality would prevail, with cameras replacing eyeballs. "If you had a series of vehicles in close proximity, what you'd really like is a continuous shrouded or shielded shape. So maybe it's a vehicle that, in the autonomous mode, deploys aerodynamic devices."

There will, in all this, be room for the driving enthusiast. "You don't have to get into an all-or-nothing mind-set," says Burns. "I don't see automobiles and great design going away."

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