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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Pondering driverless vehicles

The talk of driverless, or autonomous, vehicles has been big news from automotive and technology industries of late.  The “conversation,” beginning with Google, and continuing with automaker and software giants, seems to indicate that the reality of the concept is getting close.

I have written regular reports on the topic, most recently a couple weeks ago.  Vehicles without drivers sound so radical, that many of us are struggling with how it can possibly happen. The many questions that potential users have about autonomous viability are the very same ones that developers are working diligently to solve.

For example, such concerns are typified by reader W.S., who expressed, “We enjoyed your article ‘Room for improvement’ in today’s S-R.  Although I drive only 10 to 20 miles a day, I see multiple violations and inappropriate driving every time out. As you point out speeding and lane changing are some of the worst.  I would feel much safer if this behavior would stop, but there is never traffic enforcement around.  Now if self-driving cars could prevent this behavior we would certainly be more comfortable.”

So, he “buys” the enhanced safety potential, but continues to wonder, “1. How does the car know where it is?  What would the car do on a forest service road?  What would happen to guidance with a foot of snow on the road?  2. Will the car be able to avoid the inevitable potholes and ruts in our streets?  3. Will an automatic car in the right lane of a four lane street when it comes upon 2 stopped cars in the left lane at an intersection with no marked crosswalk and no visibility know if the car is waiting to make a left turn or a pedestrian is crossing in front?  4. Will it drive in and park in my garage?  And that’s just the beginning of the complexity of the task facing the developers of these vehicles.”

Many of the specifics of how autonomous cars will operate are not yet set in stone. Federal approval of proposed systems will undoubtedly be the biggest hurdle to enactment.  One recent decision by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration allowing the autonomous system to qualify as a “driver” is a big step toward adoption of the technology.

To answer W.S.’s concerns:  1. A popular concept is V2G (vehicle to grid) communications, where each vehicle will communicate with a digital map that will contain all pertinent data. That, coupled with advanced vehicle software, cameras and radar will guide vehicles in their paths and decision making, using painted lines, road shoulders, distance scanning and multiple cues.  2. There will definitely be software features designed to recognize and avoid road hazards.  3. This is a good example of one of the many specifics that software engineers and artificial intelligence experts are addressing to simulate and exceed the versatility of human judgement.  4. Yes, they will definitely be programmable to park wherever the owner wishes.

W.S. is right that autonomous development is an arduous task, but all of the experts seem to agree on its feasibility.  Humans have an impressive array of sensors sending signals that the brain receives and filters.  An autonomous vehicle will use cameras, radar, lasers and sensors to send data to a computer programmed with advanced, specific AI (artificial intelligence) directed to the driving task.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at