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Autonomous vehicles are rolling toward reality

|  January 20, 2014

I grew up watching “The Jetsons.” For those of you too young to remember, it was a futuristic cartoon set in space, following the lives of a family who flew around in cars. I’d watch and think, “That would be so cool!”

The evolution of technology is maturing at an unparalleled rate. Ten years ago, the majority of us didn’t even have a global positioning satellite (GPS) device in our vehicles. What an exciting time to be present in the world, to watch changes that surpass the Industrial Revolution. Who could have predicted digital technology would be the reason we could become like the Jetsons during our lifetime?

Car companies have broken through the technology cost/benefit barrier. Many have self parallel parking, smart braking and many other driver warning systems to help reduce collisions and give courage to some of the world’s worst drivers. Although many of us see this as new technology, the groundwork for these futuristic innovations first started in the late 1920s, with generations of these vehicles test-driven on public roads since the 1940s. What was holding technology back was the need for sensing devices to be installed in streets. The overwhelming infrastructure costs were too high, thus sending engineers back to the drawing board.

Today’s autonomous vehicles are aided by quantum advances in digital camera technology and GPS systems. Even a few years ago, the camera and GPS systems still lacked the speed and accuracy to maneuver in tight situations, but improvements to these functions have given us the ability to produce reliable autopilot systems.

Anyone interested in recreational boating can appreciate this technology. This past summer, I had a new autopilot/anticollision system installed in my boat. Once I learned how to enter a route into the touchscreen, it was amazing to experience the feeling of letting go of the wheel. Maybe I should say amazing and unnerving because I spent the majority of my summer watching my charts closely to ensure the system was going where it was plotted.

All of the major car manufacturers are much further along with their plans to release fully autonomous vehicles that are relatively affordable. Most are using a combination of GPS, digital cameras and digital sensors, similar to those already in use on parking/collision alert systems. Releasing these systems into mainstream production has made the step toward becoming fully autonomous more manageable. Most manufacturers expect to introduce autonomous systems into mainstream production during the next two to five years, which means, depending on the length of your lease, your new purchase might have an autonomous option. These systems aren’t being reserved just for the ultrawealthy, either. GM, Ford and Volkswagen are testing these systems on entry-level vehicles.

If all goes according to plan, we soon might not have to worry about receiving the dreaded phone call informing us an employee rear-ended another vehicle.

You can reach Stanbridge, a PMP and longtime technology columnist, at

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