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From Sci-Fi to Driveway: Driverless Smart Cars Hitting Road Soon

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A Valeo representative swipes his finger across an iPhone to initiate a self-parking demonstration during a driverless car demo at the 2014 International CES in Las Vegas in this Jan. 8, 2014, photo. ROBYN BECK / AFP - Getty Images

Your car is already warm and ready to go when you slip into the driver’s seat, open up your iPad and relax during a leisurely drive to work, traffic flowing smoothly as you cruise to your downtown office. As you pull up, rain begins to fall, so you step out under the veranda, press a button on your smartphone and the sedan heads off on its own to find a parking spot.

What might seem like a scene out of a sci-fi movie is rapidly moving closer to reality, or so discovered the 10,000 attendees at the annual Intelligent Transportation Systems conference in Detroit. The event marks a major transition point for so-called smart cars, with a growing number of manufacturers laying out plans to put autonomous vehicles into production – some, like Cadillac and Audi, before the end of the decade.

Proponents praised the technology as a way to improve traffic flow, reduce fuel consumption and “save thousands of lives a year,” according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief David Friedman. But there were also some notes of caution about the potential threats to personal privacy and data security.

“No other suite of technologies offers so much potential for good and it’s time to turn potential into reality,” declared General Motors CEO Mary Barra, the keynote speaker at the ITS World Congress.

Driverless technology coming soon: Bill Ford 1:34

Barra used the event to reveal plans for GM’s Cadillac division to launch production of an all-new model in 2017 that will be equipped with the new Super Cruise system. It would not only allow a driver to take the foot off the gas – as with the most advanced Active Cruise Control systems now on the road – but also take hands off the wheel.

Cadillac will also launch an updated version of its midrange CTS model that will be able to talk to other vehicles on the road. The federal government is preparing new standards for Vehicle-to-Vehicle and Vehicle-to-Infrastructure – V2V and V2I, in tech-speak – that would be used to keep motorists alerted to traffic jams, crashes, construction and weather problems.

Combined with the growing array of in-car safety systems, the technology could help motorists avoid crashes when, for example, another vehicle runs a red light.

It could also permit what transportation experts call “platooning,” where your car travels in a cluster, much like trains on a track, only inches from the vehicle ahead. That could squeeze far more vehicles onto today’s highways without adding more asphalt.

“Cars are now able to track where we shop, where we eat and where we go on family vacations, but drivers should be able to go about their daily lives without being tracked.”

Exactly how quickly all this technology will reach the road is unclear. Michigan announced a pilot V2I program that will cover 120 miles of freeway in the Detroit area. Cadillac, Honda and several other makers showed off semi-autonomous vehicles that will start rolling out during the remainder of the decade. Google is preparing a fleet of 100 self-driving vehicles that won’t even have steering wheels or pedals, though there are no production plans. Nissan last year revealed plans to put a fully autonomous car on the road in 2020.

A study released by Navigant Research in July forecast there will be 95 million autonomous vehicles sold annually around the world.

But there have been some notes of caution sounded.

“Cars are ‘smarter’ than they have ever been, and they will only continue to get smarter as technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace,” said New York Sen. Charles Schumer earlier this year. “Cars are now able to track where we shop, where we eat and where we go on family vacations, but drivers should be able to go about their daily lives without being tracked.”

There’s already a growing flap about the use of license plate readers that can track any vehicle passing by a fixed or mobile camera system. But between the black boxes NHTSA will soon require on all vehicles, and the onboard communications systems, the potential to abuse privacy becomes significant.

Image: The driver of a prototype Acura RLX sedan places his hands on his knees during a driving demonstration in Detroit, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014.
The driver of a prototype Acura RLX sedan places his hands on his knees during a driving demonstration in Detroit on Sept. 9, 2014. The car has cameras that monitor lane marking and multiple radar sensors on the front and sides. On top is a beacon that uses laser beams to continually scan the car’s surroundings. GPS also helps the car stay on a previously mapped course and follow the speed limit. Mike Householder / AP

“We don’t need personalized data,” argued Ralf Lenniger, a senior vice president with German auto supplier Continental Automotive, a leader in autonomous technology. “If cars are crossing a route, it’s not important who’s in the car, it’s important what’s across the street.”

Not everyone is so confident privacy will be respected – especially if hackers start targeting tomorrow’s smart cars.

“The time is now: We need to make sure we move forward aggressively on cybersecurity,” NHTSA administrator Friedman said during a speech at the ITS conference.

Researchers already have shown it is possible to access the underlying software used by the high-tech Tesla Model S. Another university group was able to crack the code for a vehicle’s remote keyless entry system. So, even if authorities decide to put personal data off-limits in tomorrow’s cars, the fear is that hackers won’t be so respectful of privacy.

Despite such concerns, however, few expect to see the push for smart cars and autonomous vehicles to be derailed. The potential benefits, both in terms of traffic flow and safety, are too great. What was long relegated to the world of sci-fi is likely to be parked in your driveway in the very near future.

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