Insight into the Quest for Driverless Cars

Wall Street Journal

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.




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