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COMPUTING SCIENCE

Leave the Driving to It

How would lives and landscapes change if every car had a computer in the driver’s seat?

Brian Hayes

2011-09HayesFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageJane has a meeting this morning, so the car comes to pick her up at 8:15. En route, she finishes her breakfast, reviews her PowerPoint slides, updates her Facebook status, and does her daily KenKen. After the car delivers her to the office, it drives to a parking garage on the outskirts of the city, where it slips into a low, narrow slot. Later it will take young Judy and Elroy to their music lessons, then stop for a load of groceries before bringing Jane home. The car also has an errand of its own on today’s agenda: the quarterly inspection and recertification required of all licensed autonomous vehicles.

Cars that drive themselves were already a cliché of futurist fantasies 50 years ago, and their long association with cartoonish fiction and dioramas at the World’s Fair makes it hard to take the idea seriously. Nevertheless, sober thinkers believe it may be only a decade or two before the family car has a computer in the driver’s seat. It’s not too soon to ponder the social, economic and cultural consequences of such a development.

Already, some cars come equipped with “driver assistive technologies.” There’s adaptive cruise control, which keeps an eye on the car ahead and maintains a steady separation. Another system warns the driver if the car begins to stray outside its proper lane. And a few models even offer hands-free parallel parking.

More ambitious levels of automation are at the research-and-testing stage. In 1997 eight cars paraded down a San Diego freeway with the drivers waving both hands out the window, like kids showing off on a roller coaster. That demonstration was performed on a lane studded with magnetic markers to guide the vehicles, but more recent trials have not required such aids. In contests sponsored by the U.S. military, autonomous vehicles have successfully traversed rough terrain and dodged city traffic. Google has built a fleet of seven computer-controlled cars, which have driven 140,000 miles on public roads (with a human driver present but seldom intervening). And last summer four mostly driverless electric-powered minivans completed a 15,000-kilometer trip from Italy to China.

Even with these milestones behind us, huge challenges remain. Later in this column I’ll return to those scientific and engineering obstacles, but first I want to play the what-if game. If we could put a cybercar in every garage, how would that change the rhythms and routines of daily life?





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