Self-driving cars roll into CES
Automakers explore the concept of automated driving years after the first Google foray.
Toyota and Audi's cars won't need a lift to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. They can drive themselves.
Both Toyota (TM) and Volkswagen (VLKAY) have announced plans to bring self-driving luxury vehicles to CES this year, building on technology that Google (GOOG) has been experimenting with for a few years now. Toyota leaked a short video of a Lexus LS equipped with a radar on top that allows the car to communicate with other vehicles on the road and with a theoretical highway "grid" of wirelessly connected signs and signals that could control traffic patterns.
Audi, meanwhile, let it slip to the Wall Street Journal that it would be coming to Vegas with a ride that finds parking spaces on its own and parks itself without help from a driver. Stanford University developed a self-driving prototype using an Audi TTS, but the Volkswagen-owned automaker's CES model would be its first independent stab at automated driving. Mercedes-Benz already has similar technology and Ford (F), Nissan (NSANY), Volvo and others have been dabbling with it, but automakers are slowly taking sensory technology from semi-autonomous convenience features to full controls designed to minimize the driver's role altogether.
Google began testing autonomous-driving cars as early as 2011, but just last year received legal authorization to test its cars on roads in both Nevada and California. Toyota got involved early, as Google used both Toyota Prius hybrids and the Lexus RX450h crossover SUV as test vehicles for its program. PC World notes that companies like Nokia use similar technology in cars they use to map cities.
Toyota is quick to point out that it wasn't directly involved in Google's program and has been working on its own technology independently. Toyota's system is designed to alert vehicles around it when it stops, turns or goes over a slick patch in a road. Ideally, speed limit signs would send signals to a car that limit its speed, while traffic lights would emit signals when they turn red that would force cars to slow to a halt as they approach.
If all of this conjures images of Terminator-style Skynet machines placing human lives in jeopardy through their heartless functions, just keep in mind that the Highway Safety Research Institute at the University of Michigan determined more than 30 years ago that 93% of all driving accidents were caused by human error. In recent years, automakers have added "adaptive cruise control" that matches a vehicle’s speed to that of surrounding traffic and lane assistance that automatically steers vehicles back between the lines if the driver veers outside them by accident. It's not the vehicle's technology that's dangerous, but the easily distracted meatbag behind the seat that's controlling it.
While drivers would still be behind the wheel of self-driving cars and could take over when needed, Google and the automakers insist that limiting the driver's responsibilities will take some of the danger out of driving. It a town that thrives on ill-advised recklessness, Toyota and Audi's vehicles are playing it safe.
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Extra benefit - Self-driving cars can be programmed to obey traffic laws, increasing safety for everyone on the road. It seems that humans are not trainable.
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