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Driverless cars, on display in Orlando this fall, may be in our future

ORLANDO — The goal is a car that can drive itself, leaving the occupants to while away their time texting, reading, grooming, talking on the cell phone — in short, all the things they do now that cause crashes and tragedy.

The technology for a fully automated car will be on display in Orlando this fall, and supporters say it's closer to reality than most might imagine.

"That's our long-term vision," said Nady Boules, director of General Motors Co.'s electrical-control integration laboratory in Warren, Mich. "Cars that drive themselves and, as such, cars that do not crash." Sometime within the next decade, he predicted, cars will be capable of going from point A to point B without human input at all.

Much closer to reality than driverless vehicles are "connected cars" equipped with sensors and onboard computers that enable them to dodge moving vehicles or even stationary objects.

Driverless cars already have been tested, using autos already on the showroom floor as well as experimental vehicles. In 2007, a Chevrolet Tahoe navigated an abandoned Air Force base in California for 55 miles, interacting with cars being driven and other pilotless vehicles.

The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that connected vehicles could reduce accidents involving unimpaired drivers by 80 percent.

The autos would rely on devices that would have a monitoring range of about a quarter-mile, reading signals sent out from other equipped cars, plus units placed at traffic lights or stop signs.

Information such as a car's location and speed would be exchanged constantly.

So, Boules said, if the car in front slows and the driver behind misses the change, the trailing auto would automatically slow. More significantly, a car about to pass through a green light might stop if another auto were running the red light.

The system might also alert the driver with a beep or a warning, allowing the motorist to make an adjustment.

In 2013, Boules said, key decisions will be made at the federal level about the research GM and seven other automakers are conducting on connected cars. Possibilities range from a law mandating installation of the systems to simply allowing automotive sales to determine what comes next.

Boules said it is relatively cheap to install the technology in new cars, in part because much of what is needed often is already present, including speakers and screens for satellite GPS.

Older cars could get the same results by purchasing devices that would plug into a lighter socket like a GPS, he said. He would not discuss pricing.

In Orlando this October, a test of the connected cars will occur on the racetrack at Walt Disney World, said Mike Pina, a U.S. Department of Transportation spokesman. Cars from different manufacturers will be used, and as many as 100 people will be recruited to drive. "What we have not done is see how real people will do," Pina said.

Similar clinics will be in five other states starting this month and running into the spring.

One potential problem for these high-tech advancements could be privacy. Connected-car devices would constantly track the whereabouts of each vehicle, lending it something of a Big Brother specter.

But Boules said such monitoring already occurs with the onboard computers and GPS programs linked to centers that send assistance when there is a breakdown or accident.

"It's not a major concern for us because we know how to handle it," Boules said. "It's not something that would shock customers from a privacy standpoint."

On the plus side, Boules contends insurance could be cheaper for cars equipped with avoidance systems, much as safety belts resulted in lower rates.

But, he cautioned, the devices would not absolve the person behind the wheel if there were an accident. "Ultimately," he said, "it will be the driver's responsibility."

Driverless cars, on display in Orlando this fall, may be in our future 09/27/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 27, 2011 5:30am]

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