Auto Outlook: Robo-cars could give you a ride in 5 years

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer  |  Sept. 30, 2012 at 5:30 AM
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When California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill to regulate self-driving vehicles almost no one -- industry watchers or taxpayers -- objected.

How times have changed from the late-1970s when Brown was given the nickname "Governor Moonbeam" for promoting such futuristic ideas as California launching its own satellites. Brown, 74, was just 36 when he was first elected governor of California.

Even back then he was ahead of the curve championing car pool "diamond lanes" on crowded state freeways and pushing for windmills and burning wood chips to generate electrical power.

Forty years later the self-driving car is a reality and search giant Google lobbied hard for the vehicles that have shown they can drive themselves after some 300,000 miles of testing without an accident on roads as challenging as California's winding coastal Highway 1.

Google cars have been negotiating U.S. roads for a couple of years and California, like most states, had no law saying that cars must have drivers. Just the idea of a driverless car makes lawyers ask "who do you sue?"

The Los Angeles Times said SB 1298, called the "Google Car" bill, caught Brown's attention as soon as it reached his desk after passing in the California Legislature. The law regulating autonomous vehicles initially had been opposed by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which eventually came around.

"I said, 'Wow. This sounds kind of Moonbeam,'" Brown told the Times. "I want to look at this a little more carefully."

Brown carpooled to Google headquarters in Mountain View Tuesday in a self-driving Toyota Prius with Google co-founder Sergey Brin to sign the legislation, which allows self-driving cars on state roads by 2015, making California the third state to legalize driverless vehicles. Nevada and Florida both permit self-driving vehicles.

"Today, we're looking at science fiction becoming tomorrow's reality," said Brown. "This self-driving car is another step forward in this long march of California pioneering the future and leading not just the country, but the whole world."

For now, a licensed human driver must be seated behind a driverless car's steering wheel in case the need to take over arises in areas like highway construction zones. The law also authorizes the state Department of Motor Vehicles to establish criteria on safety and liability that manufacturers must meet to build and sell self-driving cars.

Brin predicts driverless cars will be available to consumers within five years.

"You can count on one hand the number of years it will take before ordinary people can experience this," he said.

"I expect that self-driving cars are going to be far safer than human-driven cars," Brin told an audience of applauding Google employees. "Self driving cars do not run red lights."

The technology uses cameras, computers and sensors to negotiate traffic and Google Street View and GPS-based services to navigate.

"Self-driving cars have the potential to significantly increase driving safety," Google said in a statement.

With all that technology at work, John Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog's privacy project, says manufacturers will have to let the public know in writing how much data about them and their movements is being collected by the driverless vehicle.

"We think the provision needs to be that the information should be gathered only for the purpose of navigating the vehicle, retained only as long as necessary for the navigation of the vehicle and not used for any other purpose," he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Vehicles of tomorrow"

Taxi riders in New York will enter a new era before the end of this decade.

The Taxi and Limousine Commission voted 5-2 last week to set standards for the city's next taxi fleet, which will use the Nissan NV200 mini-van starting late next year.

The NV200 is bigger and safer than current city cabs -- like those aging rear-wheel drive Ford Crown Victorias -- and has phone chargers, transparent roof panels and quieter horns, The New York Times said. But the vehicles must be retrofitted to accommodate wheelchairs and they are not hybrids.

Despite a gasoline-powered 135-hp, 2.0L four-cylinder engine, commission chairman David Yassky said the Nissan got the best mileage of any of the vehicles submitted for the Taxi of Tomorrow contest. Nissan is also testing an all-electric e-NV200 that shares components from the all-electric Leaf sedan.

The front-wheel drive NV200 will join the New York taxi fleet in the next three to five years, the Times said.

Growing pains

It's no secret the Detroit Three are trying to keep their profits going after better-than-expected summer sales.

General Motors Co. plans to refinance a $5 billion line of credit it has had for two years and has not had to touch, and double it to $10 billion, The Detroit News said.

GM hasn't needed the line of credit because it had $32.6 billion in cash and securities on hand at the end of June. Doubling the credit line could help the automaker restore its credit rating to investment grade.

Ford Motor Co., whose debt is rated investment grade, is considering layoffs for salaried workers in its troubled European operation. The News said Ford is offering voluntary separation to employees in Germany, the United Kingdom, and possibly in 17 other European markets to cut personnel costs.

Ford sales are down 12 percent in Europe from the same period last year and the European division could lose $1 billion this year.

Chrysler halts tests of plug-in hybrid

Chrysler last week halted testing of its advanced plug-in electric hybrids after lithium-ion batteries overheated damaging three pickups.

The damaged trucks were among 109 vehicles being tested by Chrysler -- with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy -- at utility companies and municipalities in 20 states, The Detroit News said.

No injuries were reported and Chrysler plans to upgrade the batteries with a different chemistry in the test vehicles.

"Hiccups happen," a Chrysler spokesman told the News. "We're disappointed, but it by no means spells the end of the program."

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