In continual hope of someday being whisked around town like the guys from the movie “Minority Report,” we’ve been keeping an eye on efforts by the automobile industry to bring cars with “self-driving” technology to market. Already, a few automakers have previewed driving systems that use sensors to help cars park themselves or maneuver through slow, rush hour traffic with little or no input from the driver. This week at the SAE International World Congress, an engineering conference in Detroit, auto-tech specialists gathered to discuss some bigger objectives, including the introduction of cars that could take over most of the work of higher-speed driving. According to the Wall Street Journal’s Joseph B. White, the engineers’ guesstimates are that cars that can act as fully autonomous “digital chauffeurs” will debut around 2020, and will “hit the streets in meaningful numbers” by 2025.
From the point of view of regulators, White says, the most successful self-driving cars will be, first and foremost, self-braking cars. Safety experts think such technology could be of particular value to older drivers, whose reflexes typically slow with age. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration unveiled research at the SAE conference that was based on collision data from automobile “black boxes”; according to the study, only 1% of drivers in the data set applied their brakes at full force before a collision, and about a third didn’t hit their brakes at all. White notes that “active safety” technology in some luxury cars can already alert drivers or engage the brakes when an obstacle appears; more extensive self-driving systems would presumably integrate those features with more steering and accelerating capabilities.
A traffic administration official told conference attendees that federal regulators would make a decision this year about whether safety tech is now “mature enough not to generate a lot of false warnings or interventions,” White reports.