Self-Driving Cars, Future Technology Explored at 2015 SAE Conference

DETROIT — Car shoppers got a better idea of what the world of self-driving cars will look like during this week's 2015 Society of Automotive Engineers conference in Detroit.

That world may feature microscopic fuel cells and vehicles that can evaluate a driver's stress level and mood, experts said.

But first, shoppers must overcome the "Jetsons Fallacy," which is based on the old cartoon program from the 1960s.

"In the show, it's 2060," said Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor in the School of Law and the School of Engineering at the University of South Carolina. "There are flying cars, but they still have steering wheels, with drivers controlling them. We can't be like the Jetsons. We need to update our thinking while pursuing both legal and technical solutions."

The legal, technical and safety issues surrounding self-driving cars were a focus of the SAE panels.

Ray Kurzweil, futurist, inventor and director of engineering at Google, kicked things off in his keynote address by noting that vehicle crashes kill 1.2 million people around the world each year.

"While we've been talking, several people have died from human drivers," he said.

Google is at work on a self-driving car.

Kurzweil added: "Autonomous-vehicle technology won't be introduced until it's exponentially safer than the alternative, but it's coming. It's not far away."

Self-driving cars will also be far more advanced than what's on the road today.

Kurzweil said researchers are working on microscopic fuel cells so small "you can put millions of them in a very small space and create very inexpensive, very powerful energy storage with a very high energy-to-size ratio."

He noted this kind of nanotechnology is still "a decade away."

Vehicle sensors are another focus in the development of self-driving cars.

Future vehicles "will need to be able to evaluate driver status, including habits, attention, stress level and mood," said Pat Bassett, vice president for North American research and engineering at automotive supplier Denso.

He said his company is working on sensors that can assess a driver's attention level through facial-image processing.

Experts say a key concern is that the federal government and various states are taking different, uncoordinated approaches to automated-vehicle legislation. Better coordination is a must.

Richard Wallace, director of the Transportation Systems Analysis group for the Center for Automotive Research, asked panelists about the legal ramifications of self-driving cars. Several automakers, including Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Nissan and Ford are developing these vehicles.

"You can still ride a horse," Wallace said. "You just can't ride it on I-94. Could there come a time when you can drive your own car, but you can't drive it on major highways?"

Smith answered: "It could happen. I can easily imagine a time when manufacturers are not allowed to sell cars without autonomous capability."

But will those who enjoy driving have an on-off button for automated systems?

"Yes, I think there will always be a time when people want to drive, so they'll want to be able to disable the system," Bassett said.

Perhaps futurist Kurzweil summed it up best when he said: "People will still drive cars in the future, but self-driving cars will be more popular."

Edmunds says: Car shoppers got a better look at the future of mobility this week. But will they be comfortable or freaked out with the changes?

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