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Driverless cars yield to reality: It's a long road ahead

Martyn Williams | July 9, 2013
Take a drive on Highway 101 between Silicon Valley and San Francisco these days and you might see one of Google's driverless cars in the lane next to you. The vehicles are one of the most visible signs of the increasing amount of research going on in the area related to automated driving technology.

To facilitate development, California recently became one of a handful of U.S. states to legally recognize driverless cars. The others are Nevada, Texas and Florida.

"Today, we are looking at science fiction becoming tomorrow's reality," California Governor Jerry Brown said when he signed a new law recognizing driverless vehicles. Before, they weren't mentioned in the law, leaving them in a legal gray area, neither banned nor officially regulated.

The law was signed during a ceremony at Google's headquarters in Mountain View. The company lobbied hard for the law, so its passage was something of a victory for Google.

The state's Department of Motor Vehicles has now been charged with developing regulations for the licensing and testing of driverless cars on state roads. It's expected to also address the question of liability: Who's responsible if a driverless car is involved in an accident? The car maker, the software developer or the human behind the wheel (but who was not perhaps controlling the vehicle)?

Perhaps surprisingly, Velodyne's Hall is cool on the prospects for fully driverless cars.

"Getting [the technology] finished is not trivial," he said. "You have to program for every scenario."

He has a point. While an engineer can program a car to avoid pedestrians, decelerate safely if a tire blows or stop from skidding on black ice, what about the numerous, unpredictable incidents drivers can face all the time? In an emergency, he argues, there's probably not enough time for a human to take control of a car, assess the situation and react safely.

"The idea that a human can get back into the loop is unrealistic," he said.

Instead, Hall sees technologies developed from LIDAR test cars being applied to production vehicles in stages.

That's already happening. Auto makers have been focusing on high-tech safety systems for the past few years. Japan's Nissan, for example, introduced a lane-keeping system a few years ago and some cars will now automatically brake if they sense an obstacle in the road ahead -- but both still require a human to be in control of the car.

Nissan recently opened a research center in Silicon Valley in the hopes of spurring collaboration with local high-tech companies. It's one of several car makers that has decided to set up shop among the startups and high-tech leaders of the region, rather than try to attract engineers and talent to Detroit, the traditional home of the U.S. auto industry. The others include Audi, General Motors and Ford.

Not far from all these R&D centers, on the leafy and spacious grounds of Stanford University, there is some even more advanced research going on.

Stanford's work in the field, like Velodyne's, dates back to early success in the DARPA Grand Challenge. Today, at the Volkswagen-sponsored Automotive Innovation Lab, students are working on cars that remove the need for anyone to be behind the wheel in case something goes wrong.


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