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1950s. He said connecting all of the nation’s vehicles could pre- vent some 5 million accidents a year and save 18,000 lives. The vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems create the ability for cars to communicate directly with cars around them using onboard computers and a portion of airwave bandwidth. Already, those systems are being field-tested in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Meanwhile, the autonomous car revolution is making steady progress elsewhere. Several states permit fully autonomous cars to be driven on their roads. Google’s fleet of autonomous vehicles have traveled more than a half-million miles without incident, although reports say the vehicles have struggled in heavy snow and rain. They also are said to have a difficult time parking themselves. Still, it is clear that this technology will soon be improved and then harnessed to change the nature of driving. Before the decade is out, Volvo, Tesla and Nissan say self-driving cars will be available in dealer showrooms. “We are on the cusp of some really transformational developments,” said James R. Sayer, a research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. “A lot of [autonomous vehicle] technology has been developed and is being developed, even though it has not all been put in com- mercially sold vehicles.”

But while autonomous cars have great promise, they also pose difficult policy questions. Who is liable, the driver or the manufacturer, if autonomous vehicles have a crash? Who owns the trove of computer data the cars generate? Should a computer steer a car off the road if a tree limb falls in front of it? What about a toddler on a tricycle?

In addition, the notion of manufacturer defects would become even scarier in vehicles that rely heavily on increasingly complex computer technology. In 2014, the auto industry had a record year for recalls. The Justice Department fined Toyota $1.2 billion for covering up a sudden-acceleration problem that has spawned hundreds of lawsuits. Meanwhile, General Motors is facing multiple federal investigations into an ignition switch de- fect that has contributed to more than 30 deaths. Also, potential- ly lethal problems with airbags made by Takata, a Japanese firm that manufactures at least one in five of the airbags installed in cars globally, is forcing the recall of tens of millions of vehicles. In the case of Toyota and GM, the problems turned out to be basic and mechanical. The airbag issue seems to relate to how extended exposure to humidity affects the propellant that deploys airbags. But federal safety investigations into the defects were complicated by the millions of lines of computer code and advanced electronics that are already standard equipment in most cars. Autonomous vehicles will be even more computer- dependent and more complex.

Still, the rate of innovation has been rapid and the march toward autonomous cars is in full stride. Just over a decade ago, a self-driving-car competition held by the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency failed to produce a winner. Not a single entry was able to complete a 142-mile desert course between California and Nevada and claim the $1 million prize. But by 2007, a team of researchers from Pitts- burgh’s Carnegie Mellon University tricked out a Chevrolet Tahoe with conspicuous sensors outside and advanced electron- ics inside. The SUV was able to follow traffic laws, merge into

moving traffic, make its way through traffic circles and avoid other obstacles at a decommissioned Air Force base, proving that autonomous cars were more than a pipe dream. Overall, the vehicle drove 60 miles over a six-hour period on paved and unpaved roads. Six of the 125 teams that entered the competition completed the course.

By 2009, Google was test-driving autonomous cars on busy roads. In 2013, speaking at a ceremony after the signing of a bill allowing the testing of autonomous cars on California highways, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said, “You can count on one hand the number of years until ordinary people can experience this.”

Meanwhile, carmakers have stepped up the pace of research and have been hiring more computer engineers to help them. Some have set up laboratories in Silicon Valley intended to encourage collaboration with the region’s deep reservoir of technology entrepreneurs and quicken the pace at which the automobile is re-imagined.

“The metabolic rate of what happens here is dramatically

different than what happens everywhere else,” said Venkatesh Prasad, a senior technical leader with Ford Motor Co.’s innova- tion group in Palo Alto, California.

Other work is being done in Michigan, the state where Henry Ford made the automobile a household item that trans- formed American life more than a century ago. In Ann Arbor, University of Michigan researchers have outfitted 3,000 cars with special sensors and wireless devices that allow them to exchange information with one another and with nodes mounted on traffic lights, at intersections and along curves on more than 70 miles of city streets. Ten times a second the cars and roadways “talk” to one

another, relaying vehicles’ location, speed and direction, and alerting drivers if their cars are going too quickly around a curve or if another car is erratically changing lanes or braking. Researchers are combing through billions of messages passed through the network with the intention of creating a road system that would guide driverless cars from the garage to the grocery store and beyond. To complement that research, the University of Michigan is constructing a 30-acre facility that would serve as a test track for self-driving cars. The test area would allow engineers to see how autonomous cars perform in a complicated urban environ- ment that includes street signs, stoplights — even construction detours.

For consumers, the transformation of the automobile is likely to unfold in stages. Within the next decade, cars will be able to drive themselves, but people will still have the option to take over. After that, some engineers envision vehicles that have no controls for humans at all, leaving all of the driving to computers.

“Features of automated self-driving cars will appear incrementally and organically, with vehicles eventually driving themselves. This will make the cars affordable and encourage public adoption,” said Raj Rajkumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-director of the GM Collabora- tive Research Lab at Carnegie Mellon University. “In the not-so- distant future, self-driving cars will provide society with many benefits pertaining to safety and quality of life.”


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