From Sci-Fi to Showroom – Self-Driving Vehicles May Soon be a Reality

Although the self-driving auto has long been a dream of auto manufacturers, it has remained the stuff of science fiction. But now some industry insiders they are progressing toward making the dream a reality.

Although the technology to build a fully autonomous vehicle is still in development, features like adaptive cruise control, GPS, laser sensor are becoming more sophisticated and less costly. Florida and Nevada have already passed laws to allow self-steering vehicles on their roads.

Former head of R&D for GM, Larry Burns, is an advisor for Google’s self-driving car project. Burns says, “The whole concept of a car being able to drive itself is pretty profound. This is the most transformational play to hit the auto industry in 125 years.”

GM was on the cutting edge of technology when it launched the Firebird II in 1956. The model featured an automated guidance system that was designed to communicate with wires embedded into road surfaces to keep the vehicle in its lane. Introduced in 1959, the Cadillac Cyclone, used front- and rear-mounted radar to detect impending collisions and apply the brakes when necessary.

Today, GM along with Ford, Volkswagen and Toyota are developing and refining technologies designed to make their vehicles safer by helping motorists avoid collisions.

Software engineer and head of Google’s self-driving car program Chris Urmson foresees dramatic changes in the relationship between people and their rides.  Urmson says, “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.”

But skepticism among some motorists remains high. Some don’t trust the technology and others simply enjoy the act of driving. And those who drive for a living, like chauffeurs and long haul truckers, could lose their livelihoods.  And it’s not simply technophobes that have reservations about the safety of self-driving cars. MIT research scientist Bryan Reimer says, “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, who works at M.I.T.’s prestigious AgeLab says people tend not to perform well in situations in which they must interact with highly autonomous systems. He says technologies that assist motorists, rather than replacing them, make far more sense.

Nationwide Mutual associate vice president of consumer safety Bill Windsor draws a comparison between self-driving cars and airplanes equipped with autopilot technology. Windsor says, “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.”

Although costs have come down in recent years, much of the technology remains too pricey to make economic sense for manufacturers and consumers. For example, a study released earlier this month by Houston-based consulting firm KPMG and the Center for Automotive Research put the price tag for Google’s Light Detection and Ranging technology at $70,000.

The study also states, “Autonomous cars may dramatically reshape the competitive landscape, human interaction with vehicles, and the future design of roads and cities – and they may be sooner than you think.”

The report’s co-author Richard Wallace said, “Some may ask if it is still just science fiction or if the market will accept them and pay for them. We think the answer is a resounding yes – the marketplace will not merely accept self-driving vehicles, it will be the engine pulling the auto industry forward.”

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