Driverless car takes a big-city spin

By Ashley Halsey III / The Washington Post

Q&A: How soon till driverless cars?

Q: When are these things coming?

A: Nissan last year announced an “ambitious goal” of having an affordable autonomous car ready by 2020. Others who see that as overly ambitious think you’re more likely to see them in serious production a few years after that — say, 2025 or 2030.

Q: How much will they cost?

A: Right now, the technology alone adds $70,000 to $100,000 to the cost of a vehicle. Automakers are wrestling to make it affordable, and there are projections that by the time autocars go into mass production, the additional cost might fall to between $3,000 and $5,000.

Q: Can they deal with work zones, or cyclists and a kid in the street?

A: They’re pretty good at it now, and their developers are working to make them better. Sensors on the vehicle keep track of everything in its path, and the vehicle stops for obstacles or to navigate around them.

A: Will a car with no hands on the wheel be safer?

Q: Yes, experts say. Driver error causes the overwhelming majority of crashes — 93 percent of them, according to one federal report — and there are more than 5 million crashes each year. Just getting intoxicated drivers from behind the wheel could reduce fatalities by 39 percent.

Q: Will there be less traffic congestion?

A: Probably yes, but maybe no. Cars moving along briskly — no rubbernecking, distracted drivers or left-lane slowpokes — clears up a lot of the headache right off the bat. There will be less stop-and-go and smoother passage through intersections, and cars will be able to travel much closer together. But two things may put more cars on the road: Those who can’t drive now (the blind, the elderly, people with disabilities and those too young to drive) may be on the road, and since being in a vehicle that doesn’t need to be driven will be more enjoyable and productive, people may spend more time on the road.

Q: How soon will these cars be on the assembly line?

A: There are plenty of things that need to be worked out first — some technical, some not. GPS and inertial navigation are a potent combination, but GPS can be off by several feet. That’s OK if it’s dispensing driving directions, but not so great if it’s being used to gauge the precise distance to the next left turn.

Humans are the ultimate fail-safe system, and cognitive scientists are studying how to get them on the ball fast in an emergency.

— The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The little car is tootling around Washington — pretty much on its own — when a police officer bolts into the road ahead of it, almost within spitting distance of the Capitol dome.

What is the cop waving about? Hard to say. The car is being driven by computers, and wild waving is a bit too complicated for them to understand.

Passenger Jarrod Snider taps a button on the center console and puts his hands on the steering wheel.

“Autonomous ready,” the voice of the computer says a fraction of a second later, eager to take control again.

Swing a stick on the Mall this summer and you’ll hit a dozen skeptics who doubt that the streets of Washington — or any city — will ever be filled with cars that drive themselves. But the doubters may well witness that transformation in their lifetimes, and very likely sooner than they think.

The ability of the vehicle cruising unnoticed among the tourists and important people in pinstripes on Capitol Hill would shock most of them. A ride in it also points to a few chinks in its armor.

The computers running the car, for example, can see the police officer bustling into the middle of Constitution Avenue. But they can’t figure out why he is doing it — and neither can the people riding in the car. It turns out the officer wants to wave off a driver in another car who was making an improper turn.

Could the car have handled it without Snider’s help?

“Yeah, it started to slow down before I took over,” Snider says, “and as he stepped out of (our) lane and walked across the street, the car would have continued to go. The car obviously doesn’t understand gestures like ‘Stop here.’ “

If this car — a silver-gray Cadillac SUV converted to autonomous driving by Carnegie Mellon University — looked the least bit odd, the Capitol Police would swarm after it with machine guns.

It doesn’t. But it’s bristling with technological weapons.

Two cameras — one pointing up at traffic signals, the other down at lane lines — are hidden beneath a slight ridge added just above the windshield. There is longer-range radar behind the Cadillac medallion on the front grille and shorter-range radar behind the front bumper. A pair of laser beams peer out from that bumper. Unseen behind tinted windows near the back seat, from unobtrusive boxes that match the Cadillac’s tan interior, a radar and a laser beam look out to each side. From the rear bumper, more radar and lasers.

All of them feed into a bank of four computers hidden in the spare-tire well beneath the rear floor of the vehicle. The computers also get GPS data and mapping feeds. They know speed limits and, unlike the other driver on Constitution Avenue, places where left turns are illegal and where right turns on red are OK. If one computer fails, the others take over its chores and the person behind the wheel gets an alert.

Right now, put the Cadillac on an interstate and its developers say it could drive you from Washington to San Francisco, though it would need your assistance at gas stations.

But in Washington? That’s another matter.

The city’s streets are full of cars driven by impatient locals and bewildered tourists. Pedestrians talking on cellphones, texting tourists, cabs darting across lanes to grab a fare, bicyclists by the dozens, out-of-state tour buses whose drivers appear to be feeling their way around town.

“We’ve tested this vehicle in many areas, and this area is pretty difficult,” Snider says, dropping his hands from the wheel as the computers take over again. “We think it’s doing a pretty good job.”

“But we have more work to do,” Raj Rajkumar, the Carnegie Mellon professor who directs the project, says from the back seat.

The car buzzes on down Constitution Avenue, flips on its right-turn signal, slows and then turns south on First Street. It identifies a red traffic light and dutifully stops in front of the Supreme Court until the light changes.

Then there’s trouble.

A white service truck is stopped in the right lane just past the light, and a yellow cone plopped behind it says it isn’t going anywhere soon.

“I’m going to take over to get us past,” Snider says, punching the console button. “It doesn’t have the higher-level reasoning like we have that there’s a cone there so this truck’s probably not going to move. So it’s trying to cue up in traffic, basically. It’ll just sit there.”

The computers are back in command as the car nears Independence Avenue, signals its intent to turn right and then stops to wait for the red light to change. This traffic light is one of six in the District that alert the Cadillac to its color. Someday all lights may do that, but the car’s cameras don’t really need the help.

The intersection is as warm with the lunch-hour crowd, and each pedestrian in the crosswalk or sidewalk shows up as a green squiggle on the standard dashboard screen that Cadillac builds into all its vehicles. In this one, however, the screen displays 360 degrees around the car: people, obstacles, traffic signals, construction zones and other vehicles.

The big red bus in the right lane on Independence Avenue is the Cadillac’s next challenge.

“Changing lanes,” the computer announces, moving to get around it.

The bus driver apparently doesn’t like that.

“We’re trying to pass him, but then he cut us off,” Snider says.

If she is upset — and the firm but melodious voice of the vehicle unquestionably belongs to a woman — she doesn’t let on. Her verbal skills are limited. In addition to “Autonomous ready” and “Changing lanes,” she says “Starting up,” “Entering work zone” and “Exiting work zone.”

Then it’s time to make a tricky turn left from Independence Avenue onto Washington Avenue, known as a lousy intersection.

“It doesn’t have a green arrow here, so obviously it’s got to detect the cars coming from the other direction,” Snider says as the car waits patiently, then makes the turn, veers right onto Second Street and then takes the on-ramp to Interstate 395 south.

The car zips off I-395, takes a right in front of the Pentagon and then neatly merges back onto I-395 headed north. Over the bridge, it will peel off the freeway back into Washington traffic and complete an uneventful trip back to a parking space beside the Capitol reflecting pool.

Driverless cars are coming to the United States and rest of the globe, Rajkumar is saying as the Cadillac covers the final blocks.

“Absolutely no doubt at all,” he says, before quickly acknowledging the doubters. “I welcome their skepticism. Technology cannot be stopped. We just have to make sure that it is safe, affordable and legal.”

Don’t expect an autonomous car to land in your driveway with a “big bang,” he says.

Remember anti-lock brakes? How about cruise control?

Those were the first steps, he says.

The next one coming in assembly-line cars — within three to five years — will be a highway pilot feature, he says. Put the car in the correct lane, tell it to go to San Francisco, and it will.

A year or two later, highway “plus-plus” will arrive, allowing that San Francisco-bound car to weave around the slowpokes along the way.

“The (totally) driverless version will happen in the 2020s,” Rajkumar says. “But the whole process will be incremental. More and more scenarios that we drive in will become automated, and one fine day you’ve given up complete control, but you don’t even notice.”