General Motors claims driverless cars could be on the road within a decade. The car maker says most of the technology already exists and that the most significant obstacles could be human rather than technical.
The most significant obstacles facing the vehicles could be human rather than technical: government regulation, liability laws, privacy concerns and people's passion for the automobile and the control it gives them.
Much of the technology already exists for vehicles to take the wheel: radar-based cruise control, motion sensors, lane-change warning devices, electronic stability control and satellite-based digital mapping. And automated vehicles could dramatically improve life on the road, reducing crashes and congestion.
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"Now the question is what does society want to do with it?" Burns said. "You're looking at these issues of congestion, safety, energy and emissions. Technically there should be no reason why we can't transfer to a totally different world."
GM plans to use an inexpensive computer chip and an antenna to link vehicles equipped with driverless technologies. The first use likely would be on highways; people would have the option to choose a driverless mode while they still would control the vehicle on local streets, Burns said.
He said the company plans to test driverless car technology by 2015 and have cars on the road around 2018.
Sebastian Thrun, co-leader of the Stanford University team that finished second among six teams completing a 60-mile Pentagon-sponsored race of driverless cars in November, said GM's goal is technically attainable. But he said he wasn't confident cars would appear in showrooms within a decade.