Last April, Sebastian Thrun explained why we need driverless cars in a great TED talk, but even though it’s clear that automated driving is a lot safer and more convenient, it’s also clear that social stigmas and legal issues will require automation to happen incrementally, in probably three phases:
In a few years, we might see some enhanced version of cruise control that actually controls the car during cruise conditions on the highway. Then during traffic, and finally in the city. All requiring an alert driver of course, to shoulder the blame if anything should go wrong.
About a month ago, a version of that first phase was successfully tested: a self-driving caravan of cars – a “road train” that roams the highways, which cars can join and leave at will, and which controls the car as long as it’s virtually attached to the caravan. And last week, Ford announced that in five years, the second phase will come to fruition, via a technology they’re calling Traffic Jam Assist.
The idea is that the car will drive by itself in traffic jams on highways — at low speeds on limited-access roads with well-marked lanes, and devoid of people and animals. It will accomplish this with sensors that self-parking cars already have on board: cameras, sonar and radar. They enable behaviors like adaptive cruise control — in which the car can slow down and speed up based on the car in front of it — and lane-keep assistance that prevents the car from drifting out of its lane. Put these together, and the car can drive itself until you have to change lanes.
The highway limitation is there no doubt to avoid legal issues: if a bicyclist gets hit by a driver who claims the car was driving, even if the driver is proven wrong, the PR damage to Ford will already be done — much as what happened to Toyota amid the “unintended acceleration” scandal of 2009. But after a period of public adjustment to the idea — and some off-highway use by more risk-tolerant drivers — the highway limitation will probably be dropped, followed in a few years by a new feature which will enable the car to change lanes and make turns. If Ford sticks to its timeline for this second phase, it seems plausible that third-phase, fully autonomous vehicles will be available by 2025. Although, the driver will likely still have to technically be “in control” of the car.
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- Toyota Is Making A Driverless Prius
- Driverless Cars Now Legal For Test Driving In Nevada