Hands off!

Autonomous driving technology is about to give motorists a ‘hands off’ driving experience

By Jim Gorzelany CTW Features

Ready for a car that drives itself? Already, many high-tech new-car features come close to taking the wheel from the driver’s hands. Adaptive cruise control systems can maintain both a set speed and distance from the traffic ahead, while collision avoidance systems will slam on the brakes to avoid an accident if a motorist isn’t reacting quickly enough. Some cars can nudge themselves back into a lane if the car inadvertently veers across highway markers or the driver is about to change lanes with another vehicle sitting is his or her blind spot, while others can automatically steer themselves into parallel parking spaces.

Going a step beyond, Cadillac recently announced it’s working on an autonomous driving system it calls “Super Cruise” that will be capable of steering, braking and lane-centering in highway driving without human intervention. Volkswagen showed similar technology under development last year called “Temporary Auto Pilot,” and Google has been testing its own self-driving car that’s logged more than 200,000 miles of “computer led driving” without so much as a fender bender. It’s hoped that such systems could be headed to market by mid-decade.

While that seems like fodder for science fiction, research conducted by J.D. Power & Associates in Westlake Village, Calif. indicates that a significant number of new-car buyers are already willing to give the technology a whirl. According to J.D. Power’s 2012 U.S. Automotive Emerging Technologies Study, 37 percent of vehicle owners surveyed said they “definitely would” or “probably would” purchase such a system in their next vehicle. As is the case with most newcar features researched, enthusiasm tends to drop — in this case to 20 percent — once an estimated market price is revealed, which here is predicted to be $3,000.

Such systems would deftly leverage the aforementioned driver-assistance technology with GPS navigation and a full array of sensors and cameras into one integrated function. While engaged, an autonomous driving car would stay between lane markers, maintain a safe distance from traffic ahead and reduce its speed as necessary before entering a curve, while also observing local speed limits. The system would only engage on the highway under optimal circumstances (good visibility and well-marked lanes, for example) and the driver would still be required to monitor the system so he or she could intervene in safety-critical situations.

As is likely the case with most new high-tech gear, J.D. Power’s study showed that those most likely to be early adopters for autonomous driving systems would be 18-to-37- year-old (30 percent) males (25 percent) living in urban areas (30 percent).

Still, the majority of drivers surveyed believe autonomous driving technology is far from a practical necessity due to legal restrictions and real-world limitations. Drivers indicate they’d use such systems more for “boring” motoring, such as commuting and highway cruising, but would still prefer to take to the wheel themselves for pleasure-driving. Not surprisingly, those who consider themselves automotive enthusiasts were found to not want to give up the pleasure of manual maneuvering for any reason.

“Consumers are still learning about how autonomous driving technology could be used in their vehicles,” says Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director of global automotive at J.D. Power and Associates. “Many owners are skeptical about releasing control of their vehicle and would like to see the technology proved out before they adopt it.”

Self-driving cars face other hurdles, not the least of which is legislative approval. Already, Nevada has officially sanctioned the use of autonomous driving technology on its roads, and other states, including California, Florida, Hawaii and Oklahoma, are considering similar legislation. What’s more, unanswered questions regarding liability and insurance issues could delay or even prevent such systems from debuting altogether. “The car caused the crash, not me,” could become a common litany among accident-prone drivers.

© CTW Features