GM Hopes for Self-Driving Cars By the End of the Decade

By Wesley Fenlon

Car companies and the Federal Highway Administration are working on systems to make self-driving cars a reality. They hope to reduce accidents and conserve fuel with computerized efficiency.

Google's not the only company interested in prying our hands from steering wheels in favor of cold computer logic. While Google has a real reason to pursue its automated car program--imagine how quickly it could fill Maps with Street View footage with a self-driven fleet--GM is another company interested in the fuel economy of driverless future cars.

Computer-controlled cars could drive close to one another at high speeds; theoretically this would be possible because vehicles would be networked together and know exactly when to slow down or speed up based on traffic just up the road. It sounds like something light years ahead of current car technology, but the Federal Highway Administration is actually already working on the first step of such a system with automated intersection controls.

The FHWA's developing project doesn't have a scheduled real-world rollout time, but in principle it would speed up and remove the danger of intersections:

The researchers have introduced a radically different system of "reservations," in which a vehicle approaching the intersection "calls ahead" via digital short-range communications to the "intersection manager" to request a block of space–time within which to traverse the intersection. The request transmits the vehicle's time of arrival, velocity, size, acceleration capability, and arrival and departure lanes. An intersection control policy then simulates the vehicle's trajectory across the intersection, calculating the clear space required for passage and approving or denying the vehicle's request based on the space–time requirements of other processed trajectories. The intersection manager transmits a confirmation, rejection, or alternative slot to the approaching vehicle.

GM estimates it can cut around 15 percent of fuel consumption with automated cars by the end of the decade, with even greater savings possible in the future. If vehicles do go completely automated, their bodies can theoretically be redesigned with lighter materials instead of heavy crash-safe metal frames--which is almost as cool as it is scary. Considering how many people drive oversized SUVs just to feel safe and powerful on the road, we're not going to see society ditch their rides for robotic cars that are probably completely safe.

We'd be happy with baby steps leading to a far-off nation of driverless cars. GM's already developed a funny little concept car called the EN-V that can drop its driver off, park itself and come back for the pickup. More simply, being able to drive into a pre-mapped parking garage, hop out of the car, and watch it head off to a slot on its own would be convenient. We already have smart parking decks that know how many open spaces there are--now we just need smart cars to drive themselves into those spaces.

As crazy as the technology seems, legislation will end up being a greater challenge. Companies like GM will have to lobby for self-driving cars. How do laws change when automated vehicles make up 10 percent, 25 percent, 60 percent of the world? How will insurance work?