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By Kathleen Tracy

The definition of appliance is an electrical device within the home that is time and/or labor saving. It could be argued that the new generation of digitzed, home-connected, power-generating cars are a new kind of appliance. Where automobiles were imagined as an electric horse of sorts completely under human control, car are becoming more automatic and do more than simply move us from point A to point B. At the recent Consumer Electronics show, exhibitors showed off a driverless car that made it clear the stuff of 20th century sci-fi is 21st reality.

It’s not surprising that the logistics industry is jumping on the driverless bandwagon. Morgan Stanley researcher William Greene, who authored Autonomous Cars: Self-Driving, the New Auto Industry Paradigm, says, “Longhaul freight delivery is one of the most obvious and compelling areas for the application of autonomous and semi-autonomous driving technology, [which] will be adopted far faster in the cargo markets than in passenger markets.”

In Europe a connected-vehicle pilot has already been conducted where a truck driven by a human driver led a convoy of electronically connected, driverless automobiles. Morgan Stanley’s analysts believe that semi-autonomous system—where a human-driven truck leads a caravan of driverless trucks—could be implemented on United States’ Interstates before 2030.

Convenience and safety will drive the technology among consumers. The BMW i Remote app installed on a smart watch enables the user to check on the car’s battery, range, lock status, and other data. Since the app provides two-way communication, the uder can signal the car to make noise to make fidning it in a crowded parking lot easier.

For an extra $1000, the i3 offers a parking package. By pushing a dashboard button, the car will identify a suitable space and then parallel park using sensors. It can fit in a space with just 22 inches of extra space. The feature is completely autonomous, controlling both gas and brakes. For many drivers, the feature will be well worth the cost.

In the United States, Google is emerging as one of the biggest promoters of autonomous vehicles, with the Mountain View, California-based headquarters operating a full fleet of cars capabale of navigating themselves. To date, Google’s driverless fleet has driven 400,000 miles with only one reported accident—and that happened when a human was driving one of the cars.

The reality of autonomous vehicles has many states scrambling to introduce laws regulating the quickly blossoming technology. Experts believe that once regulations are outlined and in place, autonomous vehicles could be on the streets by the end of the decade. Among the issues to be sorted out include liability—in the case of an accident, will the manufacturer or the driver be held responsible—and what kind of insurance coverage will states require for autonomous vehicles.

Officials from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) have already held a public forum on the issue and many in the auto industry expect California will take the lead in paving yhe way for autonomous cars.

Steven Siko, a safety manager at Chrysler, warns, “But if we make the rules so restrictive, it’ll be easy for manufacturers to go across the border to Nevada, where they are testing them, or even Florida. I appreciate that this is a tough spot for the DMV to be in, but the intent of the law is for California to be a leader.”

It should be noted that approximately 90 percent of accidents are caused by driver error, often caused by distractions—something not an issue with autonomous cars, which won’t be tempted to text while guiding the vehicle or go offline to see what the kids are doing in the backseat.

Car manufacturers are doing their part by perfecting the technology. Dr. Maarten Sierhuis, a former NASA scientist now heading Nissan’s research center in Sunnydale, California, is looking to make one giant leap for driving.

Sierhuis says. “When the car can decide where to get off, make the lane change itself, and decide where to park and how to park, at that point you have a car that drives itself like a human drives. We will definitely see a big leap between what we have today to what we will have by 2020.”

United States commuters currently spend more than 5.5 billion hours stuck in traffic every year. Dr. Alex Bayen, a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at University of California – Berkeley says autonomous cars will enable people to be more productive and significantly reduce stress. Experts also believe traffic will flow more smoothly the more autonomous vehicles are on the road.

As Bayen notes, driverless cars are the ultimate mobile device. “Time, spent in the car, is one of the few pieces of time that is still free for the private sector to grab.”


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