Self-driving cars will need humans as they get in gear
June 4, 2015 12:06 AM
John Dolan, right, principal systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, shows where sensors are located on CMU’s Cadillac SRX.
By Jon Schmitz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Even as Carnegie Mellon University again demonstrated its prototype for a driverless car to visiting dignitaries on Wednesday, its engineers cautioned that it will be awhile before humans are completely removed from the controls.
The head of Google’s driverless car program had said Monday that he hoped to have a completely autonomous vehicle — one without a steering wheel or pedals — ready by the time his son is old enough to drive in five years. Chris Urmson, who formerly worked in CMU’s program, told attendees of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America’s annual meeting that in testing a self-driving vehicle that allowed humans to take over, the humans often misbehaved, causing his team to refocus on a goal of a vehicle that always controls itself.
But in demonstrating the CMU vehicle to convention visitors, John Dolan, principal systems scientist at the university’s Robotics Institute, and Raj Rajkumar, professor of electrical and computer engineering, said they think the human element will remain a part of driving, at least in the early stages of self-driving cars.
“People will need to develop confidence in the technology, and also for safety reasons,” Mr. Dolan said as he switched CMU’s Cadillac SRX between autonomous and human modes during a test drive on Route 19 in Cranberry.
“Someday in the future [a completely driverless car] would definitely be an option, but it will be quite some time before we get there,” Mr. Rajkumar said. “During this process we do expect that the human will be able to override what the vehicle does in many conditions. And the vehicle may say I want you to get ready and take over, I’m going to a region where I can’t drive by myself … or an area where the road could be covered by snow. And while the human is driving, the vehicle may choose to apply the brakes because the human isn’t paying attention. So it can basically go both ways.”
Among those riding in the CMU vehicle was Gregory Winfree, assistant secretary for research and technology for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“This technology has really progressed by leaps and bounds. I would certainly say within the next 10 to 12 years we’ll start to see this technology being available to a large majority of the public,” he said.
Scientists will have to perfect vehicle-to-vehicle communication that lets the cars talk to one another about their speed, location and direction of travel “so every vehicle knows what its neighbors are doing,” Mr. Winfree said.
Eventually, the vehicles will connect to highway infrastructure and devices carried by pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, school students and those who use wheelchairs, with a potential major reduction in road fatalities, he said.
Mr. Dolan said a self-driving function, when it becomes available to consumers, likely will begin as an option on high-end vehicles, with an added cost of $10,000 to $15,000.
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