In the race toward the driverless future, a host of huge companies — including Google and major car manufacturers — are angling for position. What they're chasing will fundamentally change auto transportation, transferring most, and eventually all, driving responsibility from humans to computers.
Whenever we arrive at the driverless destination (there's disagreement about when but not if), it could be important news for older drivers, who stand to benefit more than most. Poor eyesight and other aging effects often force seniors to hand over the car keys and find less convenient modes of transportation.
So what exactly is a driverless car? How much will older drivers really benefit? And how realistic are the time frames?
An autonomous relationship
First, a clarification: Driverless vehicles, in the short term, won't actually be driverless. Humans will still be required. If you imagined lounging in the back seat of your car as your robot driver takes control up front, think again. That's not happening anytime soon.
In fact, the automobile industry doesn't want to call the vehicles "driverless" at all. It prefers "autonomous" or "automated driving" cars, and for now those terms are more accurate, as the first wave of technology — some of it already available — functions more like an autopilot mode on an airplane.
"We still see the driver being at the center of the driving experience," says Ford Motor Co.'s Randy Visintainer, director of research and innovation. "That's the focus of what we're doing."
In autonomous driving, the car's computer, working with sensors, cameras and other technical wizardry mounted around its frame, takes over from the driver and performs certain tasks. Many cars now on the market offer options such as parking assist, which automatically parallel parks with limited input from the driver, and driver alert, which gives a warning if driving patterns indicate drowsiness. Back-up cameras, collision warning systems, blind-spot monitors and lane-keeping technology are also fairly common now.
These incremental advances in autonomy are available on cars in all price ranges, and Visintainer says these can be especially important for older people, as they can relieve much of the anxiety associated with driving at an advanced age.
"You don't have to continually monitor what the driver up front is doing, the driver to the side and what's happening behind," he says. "The more we can provide information and manage the information and allow the driver to focus on what's important, the more relaxing the drive can be."
But Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT's AgeLab who specializes in driver safety issues, says that for such autonomous features to really benefit older drivers, the drivers need to feel comfortable and safe using them.
"Many autonomous features have the potential to help older drivers stay in the vehicle and comfortably drive for longer. However, there are significant limitations," says Reimer. "Is the driver capable of engaging with these technologies safely? How do we trust these technologies?"
Reimer points to tests the AgeLab has done with older drivers using a parking assist feature, which he calls a "wonderfully developed piece of technology."
"People get in there, they take their hands off the wheel and they're scared," he says. After a few tries, he says, most love the feature, but Reimer says many older drivers may not use such technology without being pushed to do so.
En español | The next wave of autonomous control, which includes vehicle-to-vehicle communication and traffic jam assist, will require the driver to trust the systems even more. With traffic jam assist, for example, if you're crawling along on your morning commute, you could hit a button and let your car take over while you sip your coffee.
Adaptive cruise control is becoming more widely available as well: Mercedes-Benz bills its upcoming 2014 S-Class as the first car to market that is capable of fully steering itself in certain highway conditions. When the steering assist is active, it doesn't require input from the driver, but in order for the system to work, the driver's hands must remain on the steering wheel. If the car senses the hands aren't on the wheel, the system returns to manual control. For turns, drivers are required to take over as well.
The driver-free future?
Some carmakers may be wary of the "driverless" concept, but Google is embracing it. The search engine giant has been at work on a self-driving car for much of the past decade. Pushed by its lobbying, three states — Nevada, Florida and California — have passed legislation approving driverless cars on roadways over the last three years.
In California, the Google car has clocked more than 300,000 accident-free test miles, and though someone sits at the wheel, the driver is hardly required. The car maneuvers its way using sensors, lasers, a 360-degree camera mounted on top and GPS integration. All the human has to do is sit there.
Google says its research focus is on improving driver safety and that it has no plans to start producing and selling cars. At the recent Detroit Auto Show, Toyota unveiled its version of the self-driving car, a modified Lexus, though the company was careful to stipulate that it is for research purposes only, and not being developed for sale.
Google reps have said they expect completely driverless technology to be available within the next decade, and though the company gets credit from the industry for pushing the innovation into the public consciousness, Reimer says that timetable isn't realistic. "We're decades off," he says, noting the numerous complex obstacles — regulatory and legislative, to say nothing of things like insurance standards, driver education and infrastructure — remain in the way.
"The driver is going to remain responsible and in control for the foreseeable future," Reimer says.
In 2012, Google produced a video of its car motoring a legally blind man around his California town, running errands and even picking up lunch at a drive-thru. (Watch the clip at the bottom of this page.) It's hard not to be excited by the possibilities the future holds.
Who's Driving That Car? Google is. The Web search-engine behemoth is sitting in the driver's seat of efforts to develop and eventually market driverless cars. In this video a legally blind man goes for a drive.
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