Monday, November 16, 2009

Automatic Autos

I've actually had quite a few conversations about the imminent reality of driverless cars. Every time the topic comes up, it's fun revealing to the lay folk that we, in fact, already possess all the technology needed to never have to pilot a car again. Even more astounding, all of this technology is on cars that are at your friendly local dealer right now. When you think about it, you've probably even heard about many of them.

We're all aware of the proliferation of GPS navigation. And perhaps you've caught wind of lane-departure warning systems, which can sense road markings, and when the car begins to cross them without first signaling, gives you an audible, visual, or even tactile warning. There are actually some systems that will give a tug on the wheel to get you straightened out.

Next is dynamic cruise control. We've had cruise for years, which gave drivers a taste of the thrill of auto-pilot. But the latest systems can maintain a set distance from the car ahead, with some even able to come to a complete stop to avoid a collision.

Finally we've got self-parking systems. Toyota was the first to bring this to market on the Lexus LS, but the system is now on Lincolns and vastly improved. The car uses a variety of sensors and cameras to execute a parallel parking job by taking full control of the steering wheel.

So we've really covered every element needed to form a fully functional self-driving automobile. In fact, on a 2007 episode of Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson took a ride in a BMW 330i as it bombed around their test track under its own, GPS-controlled direction.

So it should come as no surprise that driverless cars on public roads should come a little closer to reality, as a three-year study is about to start assembling "road trains" in which cars on test tracks--and even public roads in Spain--automatically follow a lead vehicle in order to cut drag and improve fuel mileage. Check out the post from Autoblog, and try to guess how soon this kind of thing will be a reality on American roads.

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