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Mr. Green Car: Automated driving: Will your car do 90 percent of the driving by 2020?

January 9, 2014

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

The new year is often a time for reflecting on the future. It also marks the changes in laws as they become effective. One of those new laws is that in order to use your cell phone for a call while driving in Illinois, you must have a hands-free device. I believe the fine if you are caught is $75.

Fortunately, for less than $100, you can buy devices that clip on the visor to use the Bluetooth features in your phone to talk hands-free. Some of these devices may be found for as little as $40.

Even with hands-free talking, I recommend keeping the chat to a minimum, as it is still distracted driving. I nearly rear-ended a car in city traffic while driving my new Volt while trying to call a friend with the car’s “hands-free” system. Pay attention!

But automakers and suppliers are going further. The goal is driver-free driving, known as “autonomous driving.” It exists right now. The technology is still bulky and expensive, but that’s where they are heading.

I’ve seen video of an Audi driving around a race course on its own, going as fast as a professional driver could go. Experimental cars have driven cross-country without the “driver” touching the wheel. The state of Nevada already has a special license plate for automated vehicles.

Soon, we’ll see luxury cars with limited autonomous driving systems. Parts of these systems are already in place on production cars. Blind-spot detection, rear-side detection, automatic braking combined with distance programmable “adaptive” cruise control, self-parallel parking and GPS that is very accurate about where you are and where you need to go. The one piece missing is steering for you and figuring out what to do with traffic and other hazards.

Several car companies expect that they will have systems that will do 90 percent of the driving by 2020. Some will offer more limited autonomous driving by 2016.

Nissan, for example, will have an all-electric Leaf that will be able to drive hands-free in stop-and-go city traffic jams. They say the slow speeds of a traffic jam make it easy to steer a car and follow the one ahead at a set distance. Accidents would be rare and not life-threatening.

Autonomous highway driving is an entirely different matter. Then, there are the legal ramifications of who is at fault if there is an accident and the autopilot is driving. Despite this big question, we’ll see more and more of this technology, as the goal of the automakers is to have safer cars that are more alert and better drivers than humans.

Some of this technology already exists to alert the driver when they are dozing off — the next step is for the car’s autopilot to find a safe spot to pull over until you wake up and do your part.

I can tell you from firsthand experience of flying airplanes with autopilots that it is the most difficult thing to stay awake. Driving a high-level autonomous car across Nebraska on I-80 at night would be snooze time, too.

Overall, I expect the limited autonomous drive systems will help with the distracted driving we are doing while talking, texting or messing with our smart phones. The National Highway Safety Administration (NHSA) has created five levels of automated driving that we’ll probably begin seeing in new car window stickers and sales information before too long. Those are: (0) No Automation — a human is in charge of everything; (1) Function-Specific Automation — one or more functions, such as stability control or auto-braking; (2) Combined-Function Automation — two or more primary controls have limited automation, such as adaptive cruise control with lane centering; (3) Limited Self-Driving — driver turns over control of steering, brakes and throttle to the autopilot, but must still make decisions and adjust for changes in driving conditions; (4) Full-Driving Automation — the holy grail of automation, the autopilot will do all the driving and make decisions based on surroundings. Some driver input may be needed. Some delivery vehicles may be unmanned.

So, someday, when you call for a taxicab with your smart phone app., a pod will appear at your front door. You climb aboard, swipe your credit card, and tell it where you want to go (if your phone hasn’t already provided all this information), then sit back and read a book while it whisks you quietly to your destination. No tip needed.

We may not bother with owning a car any longer and have it sit around doing nothing all day. A pod will come and get you when you need to go. I just hope they’ll be self-cleaning, too. I think I’ll keep my Miata for the joy of driving, though.

From the Jan. 8-14, 2014, issue

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