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April 9th, 2017 at 11:00 am

The first self-driving car will debut in three years, but will you want to buy one?

Right now, you can head over to a local Volvo dealership and test drive a 2017 Volvo S90. With the push of a button, drivers can watch the car take over steering to stay within a lane, slow itself down in rush-hour traffic and accelerate — up to 80 mph — on the highway. It’s the first Volvo to include the second-generation Pilot Assist as a standard feature.

But, even equipped with radar and a 360-degree camera that can distinguish humans from deer, bicyclists and other cars, the $47,000 S90 sedan is not an autonomous vehicle. A driver must be in the seat and frequently touch the steering wheel. Otherwise, the car slows down.

“This isn’t a push-the-button-and-take-a-nap technology. It’s designed to make the more mundane portions of your drive much more tolerable,” said Russell Datz, a Volvo spokesman. “If you’re on a daily commute everyday, this is a godsend.”

Driverless cars are not quite here yet. And we still have many years before mainstream society trusts cars without steering wheels. But if you’re wondering when you can buy an autonomous vehicle — try 2020, when Audi plans to debut its first autonomous car. Until then, automakers such as Volvo are already selling cars with semi-autonomous features and the transportation world is preparing for the day when driverless cars will be as common as cruise control.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that this will become the most disruptive technology in history, even more disruptive than the invention of the wheel,” said Thomas Frey, a futurist and founder of the DaVinci Institute, a think tank in Westminster. “There’s a lot of interesting questions. What happens to motorcycles and bicycles? What age is it OK for a kid to be in a driverless car by himself? What happens if the kid has to go to the bathroom? Is it OK to put your dog into a driverless car and send it to doggy day care? We are going to find so many different business models and see a lot of creative ideas.”

Frey and others envision a future where companies own fleets of driverless cars that are constantly moving to pick up and drop off passengers. Humans won’t own the cars and, therefore, won’t pay for insurance, car repairs or gas. Autonomous vehicles will be centered in urban areas to the point where cities may not even allow human drivers.

Frey has been talking and writing about autonomous vehicles for years. But he feels like momentum is finally picking up with Audi committing to 2020 and other automakers launching shortly after. Ford has already moved beyond sunny streets to test its cars in snow and ice. GM is starting production on autonomous test cars at a Michigan assembly plant right now. And Tesla said it will have a car drive itself from Los Angeles to New York City by year’s end.

Frey expects everyone will have a chance to ride in one in 10 years.

“These are just coming out of the woodwork. A college kid turned his car into a driverless vehicle for $700,” Frey said. “There is so much activity in the space. Things are happening.”

Cars in Colorado

For the automakers, politicians and others who support a move to autonomous vehicles, safety — more than convenience — is the prime reason. Using cameras, sensors, radar, and light detection and ranging, or LiDAR, which determines depth, cars can see 360 degrees. As General Motors’ Hal Lenox testified at the recent hearing on Colorado’s first law to regulate autonomous vehicles: “Autonomous vehicles will not drive impaired. They will not drive distracted and they will not drive fatigued,” said Lenox, who is GM’s Western regional director of government affairs. “What they will do is follow the law and keep people safe.”

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The growing number of auto-related traffic deaths motivated Colorado Department of Transportation to create RoadX, a program using technology to create a safer transportation system that meets the needs of a growing population. One part includes working with Panasonic to turn 90 miles of Interstate 70 into a test ground for autonomous vehicles. That could mean installing communication systems in signs and street lights to warn connected vehicles of hazards and slow downs. Or it could create a dedicated, narrow lane for driverless cars only.

CDOT supports Colorado’s first legislation to tackle autonomous vehicles. Senate Bill 213, which got the thumbs-up Wednesday in the state Senate, would let autonomous vehicles operate as long as they obey state and federal laws. If they don’t, operators must work with CDOT and Colorado State Patrol. Colorado currently does not have a law regulating driverless cars.

But safety is still up for debate as the bill heads to the House.

Waymo’s self-driving pods contributed to the company’s 2-million-plus miles driven with about a dozen recorded accidents. Most of the accidents are blamed on the Waymo’s human driver or the other vehicle’s. Waymo was previously called Google’s self-driving car project.

Charles Perko, who works at EVRAZ Rocky Mountain Steel in Pueblo, testified at a recent committee hearing on the bill. He said that manufacturing employees use highly automated, advanced equipment. But the machines still aren’t perfect, and Perko said there have been a dozen accidents when automation equipment failed and caused worker injuries.

“Industrial automation is not that complex, and yet bugs present themselves constantly,” Perko testified. “With no firm standards for testing, most Coloradoans will never know the danger they face. … (Autonomous-vehicle technology) has no place on the highways at the present time.”

Sen. Michael Merrifield, a Democrat from Colorado Springs, was disappointed that the bill doesn’t include any of the safety guidelinesrecommended by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those include registration, an application process, liability and insurance.

“This is an unregulated guideline,” he said.

Automakers also have different opinions on legislation, although all want a unified approach so their autonomous cars needn’t face a new local law every 10 miles. General Motors has said it won’t operate in a state that doesn’t have a clear path to allowing driverless cars.

Volvo feels differently.

“We’re used to saying that it doesn’t matter if there is legislation or not. We’re not going to let anything on the road unless it’s safe. We don’t see legislation as the extra step to force us to make it safe,” said Anders Eugensson, director of governmental affairs at Volvo Car Corporation. “The good thing about regulations is that it might make the public more safe. The public might think that unless it’s been regulated, it isn’t safe.”

Safety a priority

Fully autonomous vehicles are being tested on public streets by automakers in California, Arizona, Michigan and a handful of other places. But no one is selling a car to the public yet. In Colorado, there also have been tests, said CDOT executive director Shailen P. Bhatt, who is optimistic that widespread adoption is five years away.

Last fall, an autonomous tractor-trailer loaded with Budweiser beer drove mostly on its own from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. The State Patrol escorted the Uber-owned Otto rig, which provided videos showing the driver leaving his seat and reading a magazine. Lockheed Martin is also experimenting with autonomous systems in Littleton — but primarily for military use. Panasonic, which is part of a smart neighborhood in development south of Denver International Airport, plans to add an autonomous shuttle to transport people from the commuter-rail stop to their workplaces or homes.

“We’ve spoken with Uber, we’ve spoken with Google, we know what Panasonic is doing,” Bhatt said. “I don’t want to get ahead (of the companies), but we’re having a lot of discussions with different folks.”

Otto, a self-driving truck maker partnered with Uber, transported the beer from the Fort Collins CDOT Fort Collins weigh station 120 miles south to Colorado Springs on Oct. 20, 2016.

Autonomous Volvos are being tested in Europe but only by company engineers. A consumer pilot to let 100 Swedes drive the cars will start once Volvo feels the vehicles are completely safe. The company uses 45 years of its own accident data, as well as data from the U.S. and Germany, to compile all the possible crash scenarios an autonomous car might face.

“We want to make sure that once we’ve gone through all of that, the car will be able to handle everything that is likely to happen,” Eugensson said.

Waymo, which started as Google’s self-driving project, said its fleet of autonomous vehicles have driven more than 2 million miles on their own (even though a human sat in the driver’s seat as backup). Traffic accidents were rare, according to accident reports that are required to be filed in California. There have been about a dozen accidents in two years, and all but one were blamed on human drivers — either Google’s backup human or the driver of the other vehicle.

That’s similar to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s own finding that 94 percent of car crashes were due to human error. Other causes were slick roads, bad weather or car failure. In Colorado, Bhatt said he has seen traffic deaths in the state increase 10 percent a year in the past three years. Last year, deaths topped 605 in Colorado.

“And to me, it’s because of distracted driving. It’s because people are making mistakes and getting into crashes and situations they shouldn’t be in,” Bhatt said. “Over 90 percent of crashes are caused by human error, so shame on us if we don’t push the envelope right now so we can save thousands of lives with this technology, assuming we do it the right way.”

How independent is your car?

Even as autonomous cars start rolling off assembly lines in as little as three years, an estimated 260 million non-autonomous cars are already out there, ensuring that human-controlled vehicles will continue to drive on for decades.

Before autonomous vehicles hit the road, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation proposed a rule that future cars must add a special communication device in order for cars to talk to other cars, signs and infrastructure. Dedicated short-range communications, or DSRC, would warn vehicles of upcoming road hazards and traffic slowdowns.

Of course, technology can only do so much. Unpaved roads still exist, especially in Colorado’s mountains and Eastern Plains. In some areas, you can’t even get a cellular signal, which is needed for some communication.

“We’re in for a messy decade of connected and unconnected vehicles, autonomous and non-autonomous on our roadways,” Bhatt said.

Manufacturers, too, will continue to produce non-autonomous cars. And some, including Volvo, are not ready to offer Level 5 autonomous cars, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines as a car that can perform all the driving tasks that humans do.

Volvo is committed just to Level 4 cars, or autonomous vehicles that operate on their own but still may need a human in rare situations. And, Eugensson said, it’s targeting highway use — not city use, where “people run red lights.”

“Level 3 says the driver has to come back and take over controls. We don’t like that approach,” he said. “It makes it an unclear situation of who’s liable. When we launch (with a Level 4 car), we assume the liability.”

The what-if’s

There is plenty of debate about safety, regulations and even the technology. But the questions of how we will adapt and the what-if’s are limitless.

Opponents are already citing the job losses for truck and taxi drivers, traffic reporters and driver’s-education teachers. Future generations won’t learn how to drive and won’t know what to do in a driverless-car emergency. Hackers could exploit security holes since the cars are one big, connected computer. Cities will have to re-examine budgets since a good chunk of sales tax is from car sales.

Toyota invested $1 billion to focus efforts on a fully autonomous car. During the Consumer Electronics Show 2017, it unveiled the Toyota Concept-I that “to anticipate people’s needs, inspire their imaginations and improve their lives.”

Frey, the futurist, believes issues will get resolved. The massive sea change to society will force people to be creative as a new way of life emerges. Lost jobs will be replaced by opportunities in new industries. The decline in car accidents should translate to fewer hospital visits and lower health-care bills. Real estate opens up as parking lots disappear since autonomous cars will constantly be moving.

“All the negative stuff will force us to build more durable systems, and that’s good,” Frey said. “Over time, that works to our benefit.”

Frey, who has never been in an autonomous car, is looking forward to that day.

“There are lots of people who love cars and always will. But over time, car ownership becomes an expensive hobby,” he said. “If I don’t have to worry about speeding tickets, car insurance and traffic, sign me up.”

Article via denverpost.com

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