The most significant obstacles facing the vehicles could be human rather than technical: government regulation, liability laws, privacy concerns and people’s passion for the automobile and the control it gives them.
Much of the technology already exists for vehicles to take the wheel: radar-based cruise control, motion sensors, lane-change warning devices, electronic stability control and satellite-based digital mapping. And automated vehicles could dramatically improve life on the road, reducing crashes and congestion.
GM plans to use an inexpensive computer chip and an antenna to link vehicles equipped with driverless technologies. The first use likely would be on highways; people would have the option to choose a driverless mode while they still would control the vehicle on local streets.
GM plans to test driverless car technology by 2015 and have cars on the road around 2018. Sebastian Thrun, co-leader of the Stanford University team that finished second among six teams completing a 60-mile Pentagon-sponsored race of driverless cars in November, said GM’s goal is technically attainable. But he said he wasn’t confident cars would appear in showrooms within a decade.
“There’s some very fundamental, basic regulations in the way of that vision in many countries,” said Thrun, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering.
The Defense Department contest, which initially involved 35 teams, showed the technology isn’t ready for prime time. One team was eliminated after its vehicle nearly charged into a building, while another vehicle mysteriously pulled into a house’s carport and parked itself.
Thrun said a key benefit of the technology eventually will be safer roads and reducing the roughly 42,000 US traffic deaths that occur annually — 95 percent of which he said are caused by human mistakes. “We might be able to cut those numbers down by a factor of 50 percent,” Thrun said.