SEATTLE – It may sound like science fiction, but driverless cars are closer to reality than you may think.
The Washington State Department of Transportation says it could be the key to fixing our disastrous commutes. Some local companies are already helping to grease the wheels.
Driverless cars are being tested all over the world. QNX Operating Systems has an office in Lake Stevens and is morphing its in-dash operating systems to help cars navigate through traffic.
"The cost for developing some of the technology needed to make a vehicle autonomous is really driving down and the compute power that is in a vehicle is going up," said Andrew Poliak of QNX.
That processing power could prevent the fender benders and sudden slowdowns that cause our traffic to snarl. WSDOT engineers who study daily traffic patterns agree.
"You really could push a lot of vehicles through and they all brake in advance of an incident and accelerate at the same time, you didn't have that stop and go. Theoretically, yeah, it's great stuff," said Mark Leth, WSDOT engineer.
Some questions remain:
- Would automated cars need their own lane?
- How would they merge into traffic?
- If there is an accident, who is at fault -- the passenger or the companies who programmed and built the robot car?
"At some point, there will be that decision to be made in software to say, 'How do you recover from an unavoidable crash? Who do you protect first?'" said Poliak.
"We have the technology to do it, but I don't think we have the vision to do it," said University of Washington-Bothell professor Tyler Folsom, who is working on a similar project involving a motorized tricycle.
A new study by Puget Sound Regional Council suggests automated cars would improve traffic flow, but increase demand for parking and encourage us to drive more often. It also says it will likely be the year 2025 before you see any driverless cars at freeway speeds.