Daily Dispatches
One of Google's driverless cars in Mountain View, Calif.
Associated Press/Photo by Eric Risberg, file
One of Google's driverless cars in Mountain View, Calif.

Driverless cars shift into overdrive


Carnegie Melon University (CMU) in Pittsburg has taken the lead in the race to develop completely driverless cars. Working with General Motors (GM), engineers at CMU built a car that looks like a traditional Cadillac SRX crossover, but drives without help on busy city streets, NPR reported today.

The car uses four computers and a range of technology to drive itself around. Lasers, sensors, and cameras work together to “see” other cars, and to differentiate between signs, pedestrians, and other road hazards. The three systems input their information into a set of computers in the car’s trunk. 

On a test drive on real city streets, the car successfully pulled out of a parking lot, stopped at a stop sign, changed into a left turn lane, and waited at a light for a green arrow without help from its human driver.  

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“Imagine being virtually chauffeured safely in your car while doing your e-mail, eating breakfast, and watching the news,” said Larry Burns, GM vice president of research and development and strategic planning. “The work we are doing with Carnegie Mellon is a big stepping stone toward making this a reality.” CMU has been working on this technology since 1984, and GM joined the project in 1990.

The CMU prototype joins several others in the autonomous car race. Toyota, BMW, and Google are also working on their own models, with Google making some of the biggest advancements, according to PBS.

Google’s driverless cars have logged 50,000 miles on the road without help from a driver. The Google cars can maintain safe driving distances in moving traffic, park, and brake to avoid collisions. They have managed to log all of those miles without any accidents. 

The main flaw in Google’s autonomous cars so far has been correctly identifying signs and pedestrians, which gives the GM-CMU car the advantage.

Several elements of driverless technology have already made an appearance in some luxury cars. Current driver-assist features include a cruise control that a driver can set for speed and preferred following distance. Some cars can also predict collisions, applying the brakes and tightening seat belts if they sense they are about to run into something. Driver assist technologies also include automated parking and blind spot warnings. 

So far, the cars work under good conditions. The next challenge for creators will be dealing with poor road conditions, like snow and rain. 

Critics worry the cars will have a hard time adjusting for situations that require decision making, like four way stops, yielding the right-of-way, and slowing down for construction. Other drivers just aren’t ready to give up the option of driving down the road themselves. Andrew Couts of Digital Trends wrote, “If completely safe transportation becomes the norm, it doesn’t take a wild imagination to envision a future in which both human-operated cars and—especially—motorcycles become illegal. Politicians have tried to ban far less dangerous things than heavy metal contraptions blasting past pedestrians and homes, after all.”

It’s also clear as the transition to driverless technology continues, licensing, insurance, and regulations will face dramatic changes. 

The driverless cars do pose a solution to a remarkably dangerous everyday activity. Vehicle accidents are one of the leading non-medical causes of death in the United States, killing an estimated 34,000 people in 2012.


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