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Driverless car tech gets serious at CES

CNN News Wire | 1/13/2014, 5:31 p.m.
The Detroit Auto show isn’t until Monday, but major car companies are showing off some of their more exciting car-tech ...

“We can only influence the technology. The framework work must be done by governments,” said Huber.

Insurance and liability are particular tricky. If a car driving itself gets into an accident that results in damages or injuries, who is responsible? The driver who was watching Netflix on a state-of-the-art car entertainment system, or the manufacturer that designed the car?

Researchers and makers of driverless cars say the technology will be far safer than people-driven vehicles because they eliminate unpredictable human errors like distracted or drunk driving, or poor reactions to emergency situations. However, the cars won’t be accident proof. The first major accident involving the technology will be a huge public relations hurdle for the entire industry.

Driverless cars’ people problem

Inside the vehicle, the humans are the difficulty.

“The psychological aspects of automation are really a challenge,” Huber said.

At first, cars will share driving responsibilities with their human owners. Companies are working on automated parking features or traffic assistance technology that will take over in specific scenarios under certain speed limit. There will be many times where the driver will have to actually drive, which means they will not be completely off the hook even during downtime.

“He’s not allowed to sleep, read a newspaper, or a use a laptop,” said Braeutigam, outlining some of the rules for a driver in a partially automated vehicle. The rules are to minimize the amount of time needed to turn a passive passenger into an alert driver who is in control of the car.

That’s where the connected, in-car entertainment and information systems come in. They may seem like an unnecessary distraction or luxury, but they’re actually a key safety feature in the automated driving system.

Car makers will want to limit drivers to only using in-car systems while not steering so the vehicle can get their attention when there’s an emergency or when they need to take over driving. An in-car system can pause movies, turn off e-mail and hide reading materials when it’s time to drive. If the driver doesn’t respond, it might sound alarms and blink lights, eventually turning on the hazards and slowing to a complete stop.

“We need five to 10 seconds to pull him back into driving,” Huber said. During that time, the car must be able to operate autonomously.

Will the public want them?

There’s also the small matter of selling the public on automated driving. For people who love the act of driving, taking a powerful car like a BMW 2 Series Coupe and turning the action over to an automated system might seem like a waste.

“We have to interpret the driving fun in a new way,” Huber said. That means bringing content and activities to the car so that the driver can make better use of his or her 30 minutes in traffic. They’ll still be able to take over during the fun parts, zipping down a curvy country road.

Privacy will be another big concern. The various sensors and in-car systems can collect data about driving patterns and locations and save that data in the cloud. The idea is to use this information to assist the driver, say updating a car’s route based on real-time mapping information.

A recent report to Congress said in-car services that currently collect location data on drivers don’t always follow recommenced privacy practices. Many companies, like car makers or GPS services, share collected data with third-parties, though the report didn’t find any selling the information to data brokers. The report recommended the government do more to protect drivers’ privacy.

Information collection will become more prevalent in the future. Eventually, car makers hope to open up the lines of communications between individual cars on the road to better avoid traffic jams and prevent accidents. That technology is even farther off than automated driving, since car manufacturers need to come together to agree on protocols and frequencies.

As cars pile on more advanced automated technology, it becomes clear they fit into the Consumer Electronics Show as much as the typical car show. They are moving beyond just being cars.

“The car is becoming a driving robot, a moving robot,” Huber said.