Cruise control on steroids: Semi-autonomous cars hit nation's roads

October 16, 2015 03:42 PM

Would you be willing to give your car the wheel? It's not a theoretical question. Cars on America's highways are already driving themselves.

'A Bit Unnerving'
The most recent innovation came from Tesla Motors. Owners of the high-end electric vehicle were able to simply download an update that - voila! - turned their Tesla Model S into a semi-autonomous car.

A New York Times writer warily took a ride in one in the D.C. area.

"The feeling of gliding autonomously through highway traffic initially feels a bit unnerving," wrote Aaron Kesler, "especially on the Washington area's notoriously congested roads. But on a recent afternoon while testing Tesla's autopilot, that feeling faded as I began to trust the car to keep its lane along the twisty highway that hugs the Potomac River in Virginia."

"Google self-driving cars have never been at fault in an accident."

Kesler notes that Tesla's isn't the first semiautonomous car. Mercedes-Benz and Volvo recently debuted autonomous features. But neither of those packages allow for the 70-plus mph speeds of the highway driving Tesla supports.

Tesla calls their program "Autopilot." It's something of a midpoint between traditional human-driven cars and the driverless vehicles being developed by Google and other companies. The download costs $2,500, on top of the Tesla Model S's $75,000 base price.

Human errors cause 94 percent of wrecks
For many humans (including the one writing this blog post), the idea of sitting in the driver's seat but not having control over the car feels scary and wrong. But experts predict we'll change our tune as we realize that it's our errors, overwhelmingly, that cause wrecks. That's the point hammered home by Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving car efforts.

"For the last 130 years, we've been working around the least-reliable part of the car - the driver," he said in a recent TED talk - the wonky but cutting-edge speaker series that stands for Technology, Education and Design.

In fact, of the 14 crashes Google driverless cars have suffered since testing began in 2009, none has been the fault of the vehicle without a human at the wheel. Nearly all of them, 11, happened when the Google car got rear-ended by a human-driven vehicle.

Always on guard
Autonomous cars don't get sleepy, look down at their phones or try to put on makeup while driving. They're always alert, Urmson wrote in a piece for

"A self-driving car has people beat on this dimension of road safety," the Google executive wrote. "With 360 degree visibility and 100 percent attention out in all directions at all times; our newest sensors can keep track of other vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians out to a distance of nearly two football fields."

Who pays when driverless cars crash?
But even the most staunch advocates of driverless cars acknowledge there will be wrecks. Who's going to be at fault?

"Your next vehicle might drive itself to the neighborhood car repair shop."

Companies are taking different tacks on this key question. Tesla announced drivers would be held liable for any accidents while using their Autopilot feature. Volvo, on the other hand, recently announced it would take full responsibility for wrecks while their autonomous features are engaged. Ultimately, these questions may be something for government to sort out.

Volvo's CEO, Hakan Samuelsson, said the U.S. right now is leading the world in development of driverless and autonomous cars. But uncertainty about regulations could damage that position..

"Europe has suffered to some extent by having a patchwork of rules and regulations," Samuelsson said. "It would be a shame if the U.S. took a similar path to Europe in this crucial area."

GM to offer 'Super Cruise'
Tesla isn't the only domestic car-maker getting into the driverless and semi-autonomous market. General Motors plans to put a "Super Cruise" feature on a Cadillac model next year, Wired Magazine reported, though the company hasn't announced which Caddy in particular it will be. Road tests of driverless Chevy Volts will be underway soon at GM's lab outside Detroit. As Wired notes, almost every autonomous concept car runs on electricity, not gas. The greater ability to tweak car features with software versus solely mechanical cars explains a lot of this trend.

Technology leaders across the board expect driverless cars to be the future of transportation, according to a Business Insider report citing conversations with more than a dozen CEOs at a recent conference.  One higher-up at Nissan told an audience at that conference that her 2-year-old will never have to get a driver's license.

Who knows? Your next vehicle might just see it needs an oil change and drive itself in to the neighborhood car repair shop. 

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