A fully autonomous vehicle is at least more than a decade away, but there is no doubt that computer-controlled vehicles will someday become a reality.
Writer Dan Neil takes a look at the frontier of making cars drive themselves.
A fully autonomous vehicle is at least more than a decade away. That’s one way to look at it. The other is, Holy Cow! Robot cars in a decade? Where do I sign up? Dan takes a ride in Mercedes-Benz’s autonomous research vehicle, and looks at the robo-cars of today and tomorrow.
The first tremors of self-driving hit the market in 2007, when Lexus offered an auto-parking feature that automatically parallel parks the car, a skill few human drivers possess. The technology, which piggybacks on the ultrasonic sensors and low-cost cameras already on board to help the driver maneuver in tight quarters, has moved into mass-market cars such as the Toyota Prius, Ford Escape and VW Tiguan.
As other technologies have emerged—optically-based automatic lane-keeping assist and radar-based all-speed cruise control—cars have acquired fairly robust senses that allow them to briefly and tactfully fill in for the driver, in congested traffic or during long dull spells on the highway, or in the case of inattention.
The falling cost of computer horsepower is key. Moore’s Law can be applied to the rapid growth in the speed and performance of devices based on semiconductors, and it is playing out in the cost and sensitivity of the sensor technology, said Larry Burns, former GM research chief, professor at University of Michigan and a Google GOOG adviser. “These systems’ computational demands are enormous,” said Mr. Burns.
What is being considered isn’t whether, but how to give cars more automation in limited situations, including driverless operation, meaning nobody in the driver’s seat.
Brace yourself. In a few years, your car will be able to drop you off at the door of a shopping center or airport terminal, go park itself and return when summoned with a smartphone app. Audi demonstrated such a system at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.