You have perhaps heard of the Google Car that drives itself. Maybe you have heard of the "autonomous car," which is pretty much the same idea. If it sounds like all kinds of pie in the sky, Jetsons-like tech that will never end up in your driveway, think again. It's already here in some cars and spreading.

"I am sure we will see the autonomous car offered to the public by 2025," said Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn earlier this year. "But these are not cars that you will literally send out with no driver, they are cars that will have all the technology needed for a driver to do very little behind the wheel."

Why do we need such cars? Ghosn and industry experts say that cars equipped with GPS technology that reads and "sees" the route, as well as obstacles and other cars could be a boon to aging drivers whose reflexes diminish, as well as handicapped drivers.

Some of this technology is already here and being offered. Take Subaru's Eyesight Collision Avoidance system. EyeSight blends technologies previously only available in premium cars-including adaptive cruise control, active braking, and collision warning-plus a few new ones.

We tested the system last year. EyeSight employs a pair of forward-facing stereoscopic cameras mounted inside the car on either side of the rear-view mirror, which are connected to the throttle and brakes. The cameras and corresponding software scans the road ahead -- up to 87 yards ahead of the car -- says Subaru, and ticks off a series of collision warnings and avoidance measures if it determines a collision is going to happen. EyeSight also includes lane-departure warnings, which enables it to see lane markings and determine the car's position within them. The adaptive cruise control on the car is able to bring the car to a complete stop from speeds of up to 87 mph. We drove the car toward a cardboard barrier on a wide-open airport lot accelerating at above 30 mph, and the car stopped with flying colors.

Mercedes-Benz's PRE-SAFE with Distronic Plus uses advanced radar sensors scans the traffic ahead for stopped or slowing traffic. If the system senses that a collision is imminent, the brakes automatically initiate up to 40 percent braking power, audibly alerts the driver, and engages the whole PRE-SAFE system. When the driver brakes, 100 percent braking pressure is instantly applied. And should the driver fail to respond, the system can apply full braking on its own, serving as an "electronic crumple zone" to help reduce the intensity of a collision.

Fully engaged, these systems are seen as being especially helpful to commuters who find them selves in daily stop-and-go traffic where many collisions happen. But they are also viewed as a technological safety net for older drivers who want to keep driving even after their natural senses and reflexes are diminished. Since most states are loathe to establish annual or semi-annual driving tests for drivers over the age of 65 for political reasons, technology could help make up for this.

So, far the government is very much in favor of the technology. Self-driving cars being developed by Google and automakers have been endorsed by the Department of Transportation eager to accelerate automation that they predict could prevent many crashes.

DOT regulators released a policy on May 30 intended to advance testing of self-driving cars and to encourage development of precursor technologies, such as vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems and brakes that apply themselves when a crash is sensed to be imminent.

"We see tremendous promise in these technologies whether you're looking at the current active safety systems in some vehicles today or whether you're looking at a truly autonomous vehicle," David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in an interview with Bloomberg News.

Regulators are eager to reap the safety benefits that may come from taking human error out of driving. Last year, about 34,000 people died on U.S. roads, a 5.3 percent increase following six years of declines.

Using vehicle-to-vehicle, short-range communication technology could prevent, or reduce in severity, as many as 80 percent of crashes involving non-impaired drivers, NHTSA has said. About a third of highway fatalities are alcohol-related.

TRANSLOGIC 121: CES 2013 Autonomous Cars


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