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Autopilots and angels

Huhnke defined two different types of assistance for two different scenarios. "Under-challenging the driver — it's really boring, you're just in a traffic jam — and over-challenging the driver, when it's extremely dangerous." For those under-challenging times, the autonomous car goes on autopilot. For the over-challenging time, it becomes, in Huhnke's words, "a safety angel."

To help in both types of situations, a car needs sensors. Huhnke identified a few that already exist: multi-beam lasers, rear and front cameras, radar, and "supersonic" sensors. Add to those car-to-car and car-to-data-repository wireless connections, and the holy grail of autonomy becomes attainable.

Huhnke gave one San Francisco–related example of autonomous-car convenience. "Imagine you're at the Fisherman's Wharf parking garage. I usually have the kids with me and they're really annoyed by waiting. And we need to drive up to the fifth floor [where] finally we can find a parking spot. It takes you at least 25 minutes, at least," he said.

"But wouldn't it be great if you just press the button of your iPhone application telling your car to find you a parking spot?" If your car is not so equipped and Huhnke's is, "You still have to drive up the parking garage. I go shop."

You also wouldn't have to know where you parked your car in the autonomous future. First, because it could take care of that on its own, and second, because, well, it wouldn't be your car — it'd be part of a fleet of vehicles that you could summon whenever you need one. To illustrate this concept, Huhnke showed a cutesy 2008 video created by Volkswagen that describes its vision of what car usage will be like in 2028:

The Volkswagen Ego in that video, by the way, was summoned from its charging station, where it had zipped off to recharge itself when it was feeling low.

As rosy as the picture Huhnke painted might be, he did note that there are some obstacles that the inexorable march of technology can't by itself overcome. "We'd like to find smart solutions," he said, "but the customer, of course, needs to be willing to pay for those solutions at the end of the day."

There's also the simple fact that cars, once purchased, hang around for quite a few years. "You might ask: 'Okay, if this technology is going to be introduced into the market, how many cars do we need, what's the market penetration for that to increase the safety?'"

The answer to that question depends on many factors — not the least of which being the health of the economy, the prices of autonomous cars, and public acceptance. Even if such cars became immediately available across all automotive sectors, Huhnkee said, "You need to wait a few years, you need to have lots of cars delivered with these kinds of technologies. It takes some time."

And, of course, if autonomous car-to-car communication is to be at all viable, "You have to have a very secure network for the safety features." ®

Bootnote

The cars in Huhnke's autonomous future will, of course, be electric — but he pointed out one law of thermodynamics that's going to be mighty hard to overcome: when fueling your car with petrol, you can pump 1,000 kilometers of energy into it in one minute. A plug-in electric car? Not so good: one kilometer per minute.

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