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Autonomous Driving Comes Of Age

Is the future really self-driving cars?…

By Casey Williams

The past and future of driving belongs to computers – and maybe humans. At its zenith in 1956, General Motors showcased the Firebird II, a sparkling turbine-powered concept car designed for future highways on which cars drive themselves. Over the decades, automakers reached for that Jetsonsonian future through a progression of technologies that brought forth great advances in safety and convenience.

The dreams tack from the ’50s, but have been realized through advancements like anti-lock brakes in the ’70s, traction control in the ’80s and adaptive cruise control in the ’90s. Add to those lane keep assist, lane centring steering and automatic emergency braking over the past decade, and you have dance cards for self-driving cars. Today, you can buy Teslas with Autopilot and Cadillacs with Super Cruise. While Tesla’s system is not officially hands-off, Cadillac lets you rest your digits on specifically designated highways curated by the navigation system.

Automation levels fall into six classes, ranging from none in a Ford Model T to fully independent from human intervention à la KITT from the 1980s TV show Knight Rider. If a Model T is Level 0, then Level 1 includes the adaptive cruise and lane-centring steering that are commonplace on today’s luxury models. These systems employ cameras and radar to assist the driver. Level 2 brings Super Cruise and Autopilot, where the driver must remain vigilant but computers control steering, brakes and throttle.

The ‘big bang’ in autonomous driving arrives next March, when Honda introduces a Level 3 version of its Legend luxury sedan. It requires a driver, but one who doesn’t have to monitor the environment as sharply as today’s drivers do. As cars progress through Level 4 and Level 5, they will take on all tasks of driving under virtually all conditions. Many of these vehicles will not even have steering wheels. Tesla claims it is very close to achieving Level 5 autonomy.

Combined with electric powertrains that place most system components below the floor, autonomy allows cars to become mobile lounges where passengers while away the time conversing rather than watching the road. Consider the recent Mini Urbanaut concept, which carries passengers in an open tube adorned with lounge chairs and a daybed. Or there’s the Rolls-Royce 103EX electric concept, which spoils two passengers in a leather- and wood-lined cabin with fibre optic artwork where a steering wheel isn’t. Anything is possible, although challenges remain.

If the idea of letting a vehicle completely drive itself makes you nervous, it should. As Tesla has proven with accidents involving its Autopilot system, achieving automated driving on controlled highways is considerably easier than making that vehicle safe in a complex urban environment where vehicles and pedestrians can dart from anywhere.

Still…imagine travelling in 2030. You summon your autonomous crossover from the garage to your doorstep via smartphone. Once inside, you tell it where to go. As the vehicle travels, you catch up on reading, work on your computer, or watch last night’s movie. It won’t matter if you are 19 or 90: the car will get you safely to your destination.

It’s going to be a tremendous ride.

CASEY WILLIAMS is a contributing writer for He contributes to the New York-based LGBT magazine Metrosource and the Chicago Tribune. He and his husband live in Indianapolis, where Williams contributes videos and reviews to, the area’s PBS/NPR station. 

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