Monday, July 07, 2008

Hello, HAL do you read me, HAL?

Take your car...but leave the driving afar:
...Nady Boules is so enthusiastic about the prospects of putting technology into vehicles that will change the way we drive and even think about personal transportation. He is director of General Motors' (GM) electrical and integration laboratory, and thus is at the center of the automaker's research into what technology is possible and how well consumers might embrace it. "All of this will be made possible and practical by use of computers, sensors, and radio transmitters, and I think we are coming to realize that they can operate a vehicle or even a plane better than humans can behind the wheel," says Boules.

For now, GM can claim bragging rights among automakers for advancing autonomous driving. Last November, a Chevy Tahoe nicknamed "Boss," engineered by a team drawn from GM, Continental Teves, Caterpillar (CAT), and Carnegie-Mellon University, beat out 85 other teams and entries for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, Urban Challenge.

....The "Boss" SUV was packed with thousands of dollars of advanced equipment and software that's not yet commercially available, such as an enhanced global positioning system, radar and sonar, and radio transmitters. On the test course it had to maneuver around vehicles driven by humans, as well as other driverless vehicles.

At a four-way stop with another autonomous vehicle, the Boss and its fellow "car-bot" communicated with one another, negotiating which would go first. "They are more polite than people," says Boules.

.... According to the recently completed Emerging Technologies Study, conducted each year by J.D. Power and Associates, there's a lot of interest in the individual systems that will make autonomous driving possible: 76% of those surveyed are interested in blind-spot detection; 74% want backup assist; 62% want a collision mitigation system; 60% want adaptive cruise control, and 46% want lane-departure warning. However, those percentages drop a bit when price tags are suggested for each system.

The $1,300 GM "Driver Awareness Package," offered on the Cadillac CTS and DTS and Buick Lucerne, includes lane-departure warning, blind-spot detection, and heads-up instrument-panel display. So far this year, 5% of CTS sedan buyers have opted for the package.

....The bigger payoff in having drivers spend a few thousand dollars to embrace autonomous vehicles is the huge improvements they promise in safety and fuel economy.

.... Vehicles would be so safe that automakers could dramatically reduce the weight of cars and trucks by eliminating a lot of steel, bumpers, etc. Even airbags eventually could be eliminated.

Much more of the vehicle could be made from plastics and other synthetics, even recycled paper and other cellulose-based material. With weight reduction comes fuel economy.

....Older people will have the greatest incentive to embrace the newest technology, a reversal of the usual trend with emerging technology. As baby boomers age into their 70s and 80s, living longer thanks to drugs, artificial joints, heart valves, and the like, they will want to continue driving as long as possible. The biggest beef against elderly drivers today is that their reflexes and eyesight deteriorate before their desire to drive their own cars.

With an autonomous car that can be driven safely on autopilot, it's the car's eyesight and reflexes that will matter more than the driver's.

The DWI would be a thing of the past!

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