Autonomous cars – or semi-autonomous cars – could be available within the next few years, but here are some pressing questions that need answering right now. By Andrew Del-Colle
As soon as I hit the small black lane-centring button, I can feel the wheel stiff en in my hands. Suddenly the light bar atop it begins glowing a soft green, signalling that the car has taken over the task of steering. I had already surrendered control of the acceleration and braking to the vehicle’s adaptive cruise control, and now with my feet flat on the floor, I slowly unwrap my fingers and release the wheel. Sitting in the passenger seat is Jeremy Salinger, who works on General Motors’ semi-autonomous car programme. He’s seen the car do this dozens, possibly hundreds of times, but, if only to reassure me, he states the obvious: “The car is in control now.”
My remaining sense of caution keeps my hands nervously hovering above the wheel for a few seconds as our 2012 Cadillac SRX test vehicle hurtles forward at 100 km/h, effortlessly bending into one of the sweeping turns of the oval track at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds in Michigan. In the rear of the heavily modified SUV, an on-board computer collects data from an array of cameras and sensors to read the road and determine the vehicle’s position electronically. Using this information, the car controls the electrically assisted steering to keep the car perfectly centred in the lane.
“Let’s do something, like a lane change,” Salinger says. The light bar switches from green to blue as I grab hold of the wheel and signal right, indicating that I’m overriding the system. Once we are settled into the new lane, the light bar changes back to green and I let go of the wheel. We repeat the exercise, returning to the centre lane of the five-lane track, and then my hands drop down to rest on my legs. Now fully at ease, I watch the wheel periodically turn and straighten as we speed around the track. The sight is both mesmerising and unsettling – as if a ghost were driving. But this is no spooky apparition; this is GM’s Super Cruise technology, and it could be available in a production vehicle within five years.
Read more in PM’s November 2013 issue – on sale 21 October.