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Thousands of international business, government and research leaders are in Detroit this week for the 21st World Congress on Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS).

In addition to the speeches and scientific papers, attendees will get a glimpse at the latest in automotive automation, otherwise known as driverless cars.

“Connectivity may drive more positive change for customers than any other technological innovation our industry has produced in decades,” said GM CEO Mary Barra, who delivered Sunday's keynote address. “Anywhere in the world that we connect cars to cars, and cars to their surroundings, we will save lives, save time and protect the environment. But only if automakers, suppliers and regulators move forward together to make it happen.”

In a 2013 report, the consulting group KMPG noted that automated cars are evolving at a rapid clip. GM plans to have semi-autonomous vehicles on the road by the end of the decade. Nissan announced that it would be ready with revolutionary, commercially viable autonomous drive in multiple vehicles by 2020.

Semi-driverless

Semi-autonomous cars are already available. BMW's traffic jam assistant controls the speed of the car and distance to the car ahead in dense traffic on motorways at speeds of up to 60 km/h, and even takes over steering.

Mercedes Benz's stop-and-go pilot uses cameras and radar sensors to match the speed of the car in front of you. It's available as an option on the top-of-the-line S Class.

Volvo's Adaptive Cruise Control adapts the cruising speed and the distance to the car in front of you. Volvo produced this explanatory video in 2012, providing a preview of what's coming.

“Drivers will have to stay in the loop, but in certain situations the car's automation will be able to control the throttle, brake and steering simultaneously,” KMPG notes.

Second thoughts

But lately there have been some second thoughts about completely handing over the driving duties to a computer. Toyota, for example, currently has no plans for a fully-automated vehicle.

At a briefing late last week, Ken Koibuchi, Toyota's General Manager of Intelligent Vehicle Development, said someday, in specific traffic environments, Toyota vehicles will be capable of full automation, but with drivers always in control.

“As is the case with zero traffic fatalities, full automation is a target difficult to achieve,” Koibuchi said.

On one hand, computers guiding automobiles might reduce accidents. Computers don't try to text while they drive or shave or put on makeup.

But computers aren't infallible, and as we have seen time and again, they are prone to hacking. What happens if someone hijacks your car's computer as your vehicle is zooming down the interstate?

Bloomburg News recently looked at the risks associated with driverless cars – everything from a hacker causing gridlock in a major city, just for the fun of it, to a dangerous malfunction.

Computers are machines, after all, and machines do fail. What kind of exposure does that create for automakers?

GM lost billions in recalls this year, some stemming from a faulty ignition switch. Definitely something for automakers to think about.

Government regulations

Ultimately the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will have a lot to say about how automated cars are and are not deployed on American highways. NHTSA recently announced a new policy concerning vehicle automation, including its plans for research on related safety issues and recommendations for states related to the testing, licensing, and regulation of autonomous or self-driving vehicles.

Several states, including Nevada, California and Florida have enacted legislation that allows operation of self-driving cars under certain conditions. These experimental vehicles are at the highest end of a range of automation classes NHTSA has established.

The four classes begin with some safety features already in vehicles, such as electronic stability control. The fourth class includes cars that drive themselves. The government regulator appears to be encouraging a go-slow approach.

"We're encouraged by the new automated vehicle technologies being developed and implemented today, but want to ensure that motor vehicle safety is considered in the development of these advances," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland, as he announced the government's policy last year. "As additional states consider similar legislation, our recommendations provide lawmakers with the tools they need to encourage the safe development and implementation of automated vehicle technology."


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