Our Northwest

Hands-off driving not far away

Tuesday, January 14, 2014by  Jon Osterberg

Someday in the not-so-distant future, motorists might drive cars like a pilot flies a jet.
   Imagine: You get in your car, merge onto the freeway, and slide into a designated “autonomous driving lane.” Then you push a button and your car’s computer takes over the controls.
   You’re now quite literally on auto pilot.
   Your car automatically steers, speeds up, slows down, avoids other vehicles, and carries you toward your destination.
   What are you doing in the meantime? Perhaps checking your text messages. Watching a video. Browsing the Web.
   Even taking a nap.
   Nearing your exit ramp, the car prompts you to take over the controls. You grab the wheel, exit, and continue on your way.
   Such technology was shown off last week at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. One of the obstacles to making it happen – the technology already exists – is how lawmakers and regulators will define liability. For example, who would be at fault if two auto-pilot vehicles somehow collided? And will all 50 states adopt the same laws?
   Insurance companies are interested in auto-pilot cars because, in theory, they offer improved safety and fewer collisions. Our own CEO, Stan, keeps a keen eye on such innovation. He’s done so in particular ever since buying a new Volvo years ago equipped with cutting-edge safety and crash-avoidance features.
   Stan and I are roughly the same age, so I totally related to his analogy about auto-pilot cars.
   “Nowdays, young people sometimes say, ‘Wow, you know how to drive a stick shift? You’ve had cars with them?’ Because sticks are far less common today,” said Stan.
   “Well, someday new drivers might say, ‘Wow, you used to drive a car that you had to steer yourself? And work a gas pedal and hit a brake and all that stuff?’ Because that’s where technology is headed,” he said.
   You can see it happening already. In-car GPS can direct you to your destination. No more reading paper maps.
   Some drivers remember the art of finding addresses – how you learn the street grid, and how even numbers are on one side of the street with odd numbers on the other. Increasingly, that’s a lost skill as people rely on GPS.
   Adjusting the car’s heater and defroster has become automated. Simply set the temperature and you’re done. No more fiddling with fan speeds, heat knobs, and defrost levers.
   And many believe it’s a matter of when, not if, that we drive “autonomous technology” cars.

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