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Handout photo from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles.

People seem to have very mixed feelings on all of this talk about driverless cars — some are very reluctant to give up the wheel and others are genuinely excited to hand the reigns over to a robot.

However, there’s one major obstacle that will keep these robot-driven cars from achieving their true potential.

The horrendous current state of U.S. roads!

A recent piece in The Wall Street Journal discusses how badly U.S. highways need to be revamped to accommodate driverless or “autonomous” cars:

The driverless car represents one of the most amazing breakthroughs in safety and quality of life in recent history. Instead of focusing on enormously expensive high-speed rail as our transportation future, the government would do well to stop hindering driverless cars by its obsolete thinking about our nation’s roads.

It seems like a no-brainer, you can imagine that with an innovation such as this, the auto manufacturers would be ready WAY before state highway departments.

The article, written by Brookings Institution scholar Clifford Winston, says that car manufacturers “have made one technological improvement after another since the car was introduced to consumers more than a century ago” — but the roads, streets and highways are another story completely.

“Unfortunately, the paved systems on which cars travel have not advanced much in comparison,” Winston writes. “Without reimagining the way we design and maintain highways, the driverless car will achieve little of its potential.”

Uh oh!

Researchers project that getting the robot-driven cars out on the roads will dramatically decrease car accidents caused by human error. The vehicles sweep up info on nearby cars from short-range transmitters at a rate of 10 times per second — which helps them react much more rapidly than human drivers.

If upgrades were tackled competently and with urgency (a big if), the new tech could revolutionize U.S. roads and highways. Winston says:

Driverless cars don’t need the same wide lanes, which would allow highway authorities to reconfigure roads to allow travel speeds to be raised during peak travel periods. All that is needed would be illuminated lane dividers that can increase the number of lanes available. Driverless cars could take advantage of the extra lane capacity to reduce congestion and delays. …

The smaller volume of trucks could be handled with one or two wide lanes with a road surface about a foot thick, to withstand trucks’ weight and axle pressure. But the much larger volume of cars — which apply much less axle pressure that damages pavement — need more and narrower lanes that are only a few inches thick. Building highways that separate cars and trucks by directing them to lanes with the appropriate thickness would save taxpayers a bundle.

Well, let’s face it, saving taxpayers “a bundle” has never been one of the U.S. government’s defining attributes …

See Also: Opinion: Paving The Way for Driverless Cars

See Also: Forget Driverless Cars … Flying With a Robot Pilot?

See Also: Seriously … When Police Pull Over a Driverless Car, Who Gets the Ticket?

See Also: 2017? 2020??? Lots of Dates … When Will We Have Driverless Cars?

Handout photo from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles.

We’ve posted quite a bit on this blog about the much-predicted driverless car revolution, but let’s take the debate even one step further.

And even a little … scarier as well.

This recent piece by the Brisbane Times says that BAE engineers in Britain are researching pilotless planes — the article even says they already have prototypes already flying over the U.K. skies. The egg heads call the technology the “future of air travel.”

Come fly the robot-driven skies! How safe do you feel about that?

It’s one thing to share the highway next to a bucket of bolts with a robot driver — but to take the the airways in the hands of a computer pilot tens of thousands of miles above the ground, that’s something else. There’s definitely a lot of people who are going to take a long time to get comfortable with that.

Don’t get us wrong, there are a LOT of safety features involved. Cameras on the pilotless planes patrol the heavens for any possible dangers and can spot other aircraft.

Like driverless cars, the robot-driven planes also use sensors to scan the skies and rely on advanced algorithms running in onboard computers.However, these systems have to be extremely intelligent — a lot more goes in to sustaining safe air travel.

“The level of autonomy can be gradually increased,” Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, engineering director of systems and strategy at BAE Systems, told the Brisbane Times. “The system flies by itself on a preprogrammed course until it detects something is wrong. Then it suggests maneuvers that an operator using a laptop on the ground can confirm or reject.”

Is this genius … or something that Lex Luthor invented?

See more video below:

HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Daisy … Daisy … give me … your answer … do.

As the driverless car story continues to unfold, there are plenty of Isaac Asimov-level questions set to come up.

Do you remember this little slice of cinematic perfection?:

Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
Dave Bowman: What’s the problem?
HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Dave Bowman: What are you talking about, HAL?
HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
Dave Bowman: I don’t know what you’re talking about, HAL.
HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.”

(A little help for the kids in attendance, it’s the classic dialogue between a spaceship pilot and his onboard computer-gone-mad HAL 9000 in the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rent it kids, it’s required viewing.)

As the self-driving vehicle debate continues, check out this hilarious thread posted to, where the original poster asks his forum mates:

“If the cops stop the Google driverless car for a moving violation does the car go all HAL 9000 and refuse to pull over? Who gets the ticket? So many unanswered questions.”

The anonymous poster was actually reacting to this very real news story (well, photo) — that the cops pulled over and stopped Google’s driverless car in D.C.

Well … what the heck happens?

It’s a worthwhile question, if the search giant’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt was right when he predicted in this TechCrunch report that “self-driving cars should become the predominant mode of transportation in our lifetime” — these questions are GOING to come up.

Who gets the ticket?

The human driver? Which one? The human driver in the right-hand side passenger seat?

Or, heaven forbid … the company that manufactured and sold the robot-driven car.

This is going to get interesting, isn’t it …?

Handout photo from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles.

All right, apparently these robotic, self-driven cars are already a guarantee — so when’s it gonna be already?

On the roads next to you in half a decade?

According to the automaker Ford, driverless cars will be sharing the U.S. roadways with human drivers by 2017, reports ExtremeTech.

Think that U.S. culture can adjust to the robot-driven way of life that quickly?

Japan by 2020?

Not to be outdone, the Land of the Rising Sun is also promising driverless cars by 2020, according to Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, transport and Tourism (MLIT).

Now hold on, this is also no joke.

This statement by the Japanese government represents the FIRST time that any government in the world has expressed a commitment to pursue the future of driverless cars.

The industry’s heavy hitters that are joining in are also nothing to scoff at.

We’re talking Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Fuiji, and Mazda. Yeah, those are the big boys.

The Japanese government promises a report on the status of their program some time around March 2013.

Sunshine State Closer Than Ever?

[Quick hit here: We have to give a shout out to this comment thread from Digg that suggests driverless cars could bankrupt California.]

With a unanimous vote, California’s Assembly Transportation Committee passed legislation that would allow testing and the regulation of driverless vehicles.

The vote is still just preliminary, advancing the legislation along.

According to an article from ComputerWorld, it passed on the condition that debate would continue on the language to limit the liability of automakers.

Still mired in squabbling, but it’s coming — are we ready for this?

OK, the driverless car is maybe going to really exist at some time in the near future — and insurance companies are scrambling to get up to speed.

In fact, insurers, lawmakers and car manufacturers are all starting to maneuver, assuming that this is going to be something other than the hovering skateboard in Back to the Future II.

An interesting new post from The Esurance Blog, discusses how insurers are working to figure out whether two different policies will be needed: one for when the human is at the wheel and one for when the robot driver has taken over.

The post also discusses how many car manufacturers are now sprinting to outpace Google on the developing technology, how Nevada has licensed driverless vehicles and other states (like, oh, California!) are moving to do the same.

Watchdog Group Says We Are Google’s Product, Don’t Allow Driverless Cars Without …

Consumer Watchdog came out swinging last week, writing a letter to the California Assembly’s Transportation Committee that urged lawmakers not to allow driverless cars on the state’s roads without strong new privacy protections for consumers.

The committee held a hearing last week on new legislation aimed at green-lighting driverless cars and Consumer Watchdog urged them not to give the OK without more restrictions.

The watchdog group said that it agreed with the concept of driverless cars and what robot drivers could do for safety — but also called Internet companies out of control and claimed that Google is going to go sweep up gobs of unauthorized consumer data from its driverless vehicles.

The letter said: “Google’s entire business model is based on building digital dossiers about our personal behavior and using them to sell the most personal advertising to us. You’re not Google’s customer; you are its product – the one it sells to corporations willing to pay any price to reach you. Will the driverless technology be just about getting us from point to point or about tracking how we got there and what we did along the way?”

Read the full text of the group’s letter here (pdf).

Still ‘Getting the Technology Right’

Sill interested? Get your answers from the horse’s mouth.

Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Google X (which is behind driverless cars and a lot more), took part in a recent Reddit town hall Q&A session.

When asked how long before we’re all riding around in robot-driven cars, Thrun told the forum:

“I wish I had a crystal ball. We are still focusing on getting the technology right.”