Self-driving vehicles will be common by 2020, says former GM executive

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This is about a five-minute exposure at F/22 of someone driving a Volvo 740.

Imagine this, but without hands on the steering wheel. (Photo Credit: CC BY/Thomas Anderson/Flickr)

Self-driving vehicles will be a reality by 2020, according to former General Motors research and development chief Larry Burns. At the University of Michigan’s Robotics Day, Burns spoke of the not-too-distant day when fleets of self-driving cars will transport people wherever they need to go, then immediately travel to the next destination to serve another person.

Rethinking mobility

Distracted driving accidents will conceivably become a thing of the past once driverless vehicles hit the road. Passengers will be able to take calls, handle business or pursue entertainment as they please, without having to devote a fragment of their consciousness to operating the vehicle. Burns notes that the move toward self-driving vehicles will pave the way for fewer, lighter vehicles in cities, thus reducing emissions in urban centers. The number of collisions should naturally be lessened.

“Most people spend 60-90 minutes in the car a day. If we could give that time back to them, that would be very valuable,” Burns said. “We’re talking enormous opportunity, and self-driving vehicles are going to make that possible. It’s rethinking the entire system of mobility.”

Google blazing the trail

Google’s experiments with driverless vehicles have attracted no small amount of attention. Thousands of test miles on public roads have already been logged over the past few years in California with Toyota Prius and Audi TT models, and the work continues. Radar and video cameras have been largely effective at both positioning driverless vehicles on a map and detecting road hazards and stop lights.

[Get ready for your car, a new purchase]

Only one accident has reportedly occurred when the self-driving system was active, and that appears to have been the fault of a separate, human driver. It is notable that control can be assumed by a human driver at any point during the operation of the self-driving system.

GM attempted driverless cars in 2007

In 2007, General Motors entered a self-driving Chevrolet Tahoe in a 55-mile race sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The race occurred in Victorville, Calif., and the self-driving system in the Tahoe (nicknamed “Boss”) used familiar systems, from cameras and radar to global positioning satellites. Boss won the race, reports Automotive News.

‘Cruise control on steroids’

While Burns maintains that self-driving cars won’t be fully available until 2020, he believes that many of the necessary features will be available on most consumer cars by 2015. He sees self-driving systems working in tandem with adaptive cruise control, collision avoidance and lane-keeping technology to promote both passenger freedom and roadway safety.

“By 2015, we’re going to have auto companies selling features that are akin to cruise control on steroids,” he said. “We’re in this five- to 10-year window when it’s going to be really exciting. … By 2020 we’ll have self driving cars.”

Determining liability

Perhaps the greatest stumbling block for the adoption of self-driving vehicles will be the insurance industry. Autonomous vehicle technology could create a maze for safety regulators to navigate, as determination of fault in the event of an accident will be more difficult to achieve.

“We’re going to have to have policies and laws to figure out who’s liable when driving this car,” Burns said. “As an innovator, you’ve got to anticipate all of this. I think the market is really going to be the thing to drive this, not the government.”

How Google’s self-driving car works


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