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Technology

15. Self-Driving Cars Hit the Road

Where will autonomous (and semiautonomous) vehicles go from here?

By Michael FitzgeraldJanuary 10, 2013 9:30 PM
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A "driver" relaxes while a Sartre road train directs his trip. | Sartre

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Last May a convoy of three cars and one truck glided, without any drivers, onto a Spanish highway. Following a conventionally driven vehicle, the group safely traveled 120 miles, a major move forward in the effort to make self-driving cars commonplace.

The Spanish trip was the latest feat of the European Commission’s Sartre Project, which aims to develop semiautonomous "road trains" that could increase gas mileage, improve traffic flow, and reduce accidents. It was also just one of several dramatic advances in 2012 toward the creation of a viable auto-chauffeur.

In the most prominent achievement, Google’s self-driving cars

completed 300,000 miles without a major accident. They are now licensed for road use in Nevada and soon should be in other states as well. Stanford University’s autonomous car flawlessly ran at 115 miles per hour on a test track. And projects in Michigan and Germany began road-testing communications systems that will let vehicles automatically share up-to-the-second information on traffic conditions and hazards.

Sartre is particularly significant because, with a human driver leading the way, it relies mostly on commercial technologies such as radar-based cruise control, blind-spot-monitoring cameras, and lasers for automatic emergency braking. And its car-to-car communications system could soon be on the market, says Eric Chan, Sartre’s project lead. Within a few years, then, road trains could be led by professional drivers, leaving everyone else free to safely answer texts.

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