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In 2028, the car you won't drive won't be yours

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Hot Chips Soon you won't own a car, but one will come to you on its own when you call it, then whisk you away in perfect safety without you having to drive it — and that day may be closer than you think.

"If you ask, 'Is it a future story you're telling us?' No, it's not," said Burkhard Huhnke, executive director of the Volkswagen Group of America's Electronics Research Lab in Palo Alto, California, speaking to the Hot Chips conference earlier this week about what he calls "autonomous cars".

Although fully autonomous cars won't appear for about 20 years, Huhnke says that his research group is well on its way. "We are looking into some of the applications coming pretty soon. Traffic-jam assistance, for instance, automatic parking — we have park-assistance already introduced — collision-avoidance systems, and an emergency braking system that brakes automatically if it recognizes an obstacle that's in a specific speed range."

A "speed range" that includes, one assumes, not moving.

Huhnke cited two main motivations for autonomous cars: safety, and the elimination of what he identified as "annoying" driving — meaning, for example, traffic jams and long, boring stretches of open road.

He noted that current automotive-fatality figures in Germany hover at around 5,000 per year. "Over ten years you're counting pretty soon 50,000 people — and that's something that's really crazy. I think someone compared that with airplane crashes — would we accept that two airplanes would crash per day over a year? No, we would not accept that. But obviously we accept that in our daily traffic experience."

The reason for the vast majority of traffic accidents, he said, is human error. Of all the many and varied reasons for crashes, he cited studies which have shown that "84 per cent are misjudgment by the driver."

The solution is obvious: get rid of that error-prone driver.

"Here at Hot Chips you create consistently great chips and computers and you would not accept that the user would create so many problems. But as we all know, the user is usually the reason for the problems with the computers — and that's also the same with the cars."

He noted, though, that per-kilometer traffic fatalities have dropped precipitously in Europe in recent years, thanks to passive safety features such as seat belts, crush zones, and protected passenger compartments. Helping that decline have also been electronic safety features such as anti-lock braking system, electronic stability controls, and traction-control systems.

Those electronic systems have also added to cars' chip counts — according to Huhnke, there are "almost 50" CPUs in an average Volkswagen today.

But more electronic safety features are needed, he said. Active safety features such as adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warnings, and blind-spot detection, when taken together, could result in a 20 per cent reduction in fatal crashes, he estimates.

But to become truly autonomous, "The car needs to learn to see, [have] sufficient technology to understand its environment, to make the right decisions." Such a car would also be able to communicate with other cars, using what Huhnke called "wireless 'all-way' connection in a smart way."

As an example of the advantages of car-to-car communication, Huhnke envisioned a blind curve, around which a car has broken down in your lane. Rather than merely speeding around the curve and plowing into the rear of that stopped vehicle, "the cars can communicate and the driver can be warned."

Wireless-equipped cars could also communicate with traffic signs, which could provide information of road and traffic conditions — and if your car were fully autonomous, it could regulate its driving without you even knowing that it had received any external help.

Huhnke said that his group wanted to find out if drivers passengers in autonomous cars would feel safe: "If you have an autonomous car driving ... do you trust your car? Do you really press the autopilot button and let the car drive you at 60 miles per hour?" So they conducted a study — and were surprised by the results.

"We created a car with a second steering wheel in the rear where the driver couldn't see it," he told his audience. "He or she pressed the autopilot button and thought the machine would really drive without human help. Someone drove in the rear seat without being recognized by her or him. Well, you couldn't imagine: after a few seconds, they already took the newspaper and read the news articles. So they trusted already the machine, which was great."

Huhnke's group then pushed its luck: "We also initialized some emergency situations: 'So please, go back to your steering wheel and take over, we need some help from you,' and they did it. They put the newspaper back, and just controlled the car through the situation. Then what did they do? Immediately press the button and start it again — it was really amazing."

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