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Road to the Future GOOGLE, OTHERS PAVE WAY FOR SELF-DRIVING CARS


by Michael A. Fletcher mfletcher@ccgmag.com


T


he notion of cars that drove themselves on busy highways once seemed like a futuristic vision, a fantasy better suited for the World’s Fair than the real world. But that fantasy is now fast becoming reality, and the era of the self-driving car is arriving.


Already, on-board computers and increasingly sophisticated vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems are allowing cars now on the market to automatically make maneuvers that were once the sole purview of drivers. Cars can slow themselves down for stopped traffic, they can keep themselves in lane, and, as we see in television commercials, they can parallel park themselves. It is just a matter of time before fully autonomous cars hit the showroom.


Auto safety officials and researchers say the move to autonomous vehicles will make driving safer and the world greener. Accidents would be greatly reduced, and traffic conges- tion would be relieved because many fender benders would be a thing of the past and cars could be tightly and safely packed on highways.


That evolution is the latest in the century old auto business, where innovation has spread from the mechanics of a car to its computer electronics. The fast-moving evolution could change the way Americans think of their automobiles. The very idea of spending tens of thousands of dollars on a car that spends much of its time sitting in a driveway or parking space would be upended. The new technology will free people to work, read or otherwise occupy themselves as they glide down the road. Even- tually, cars will become easier to share, as they ferry themselves from one appointment to the next. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administra- tion has taken the first step toward this brave new future by requiring new automobiles to be equipped with sophisticated computers designed to communicate with other vehicles via radio-type technology, with the aim of preventing accidents and, eventually, guiding cars through traffic. Transportation secretary Anthony Foxx called the require- ment a watershed moment in the nation’s transportation history — not unlike the launch of the interstate highway system in the


64 USBE&IT I WINTER 2015


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