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Bottom line with driverless cars: Will people buy them?

Published Feb. 18, 2014

When it comes to driverless cars, the question isn't whether we have the technology to make them, because we do. The question is, "Will people want to buy them?''

That's a major obstacle facing automakers and proponents of automated vehicle technology, said Jim Barbaresso, vice president of intelligent transportation systems for HNTB, an infrastructure design firm. Sure, you can cover a car in sensors and track its location to an inch, but what happens if the system fails and a car crashes? Try explaining that to a potential buyer.

Barbaresso was in Tampa on Monday meeting with top officials at the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority to talk about the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway's recent naming as one of 10 test sites nationwide for automated vehicles. He wanted to check out the elevated lanes and connecting streets to see how they might best be used in a test environment. He also wanted to brief them on the latest automated vehicle technology coming out of Detroit, his home base.

The Selmon Expressway linking downtown Tampa and Brandon could be ideal for concepts leading up to driverless vehicles, such as connected vehicle technology and platooning, Barbaresso said. Connected vehicles communicate their location, speed and direction to other vehicles to avoid collisions. Platooning involves grouping vehicles behind a lead car that sets the pace and braking, which would allow cars to travel faster and closer together. It could be done on a designated highway lane similar to a carpool lane.

Talk of driverless cars isn't new but has accelerated in recent years as technology has advanced. Three states have passed legislation allowing the cars to be tested on public roads — Florida, California and Nevada — and several states have testing sites like the Selmon Expressway, including California, Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia. Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced plans to require new cars to communicate with each other, a move transportation planners said will prevent tens of thousands of crashes every year.

By offering the Selmon Expressway as a test site, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority is preparing itself for the future, Barbaresso said.

Although issues of security and standardization still have to be worked out, driverless cars could be available as soon as 2020, Barbaresso said. Already, some cars offer lane departure warnings, adaptive cruise control and auto braking systems. Even the backup sensor on my 5-year-old Mercury Mariner is an earlier form of sensor-related technology.

"There are more companies than ever that are working on this,'' said Barbaresso, chairman of the 21st World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems being held in September in Detroit. "We're on the cusp of a transformation.''

Getting customer buy-in won't happen overnight, as we've seen with electric vehicles, which accounted for less than 4 percent of all U.S. auto sales last year, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association. In 20 years, Barbaresso sees a mix of "intelligent'' vehicles on the road, from cars that talk to one another to ones that drive themselves.

Obviously, you'll never sell everyone on driverless vehicles. But you might attract young people more interested in holding a smartphone than a steering wheel, especially if affordably priced.

Fueling the push is safety. Proponents contend that since most auto accidents are caused by human error, if you take the human out of the equation, you'll reduce the number of crashes. Seems reasonable, until there's a system glitch, which is bound to happen.

Ultimately, the market will decide how quickly automated vehicles are embraced — and to what extent. It will take time getting used to not seeing hands on the wheel.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow her on Twitter @susan_thurston.

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