Ladies and gentlemen, I give you driverless vehicles. The Cadillac SRX - the product of five years of work by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University - set out on its first test drive yesterday, picking up Representative Bill Shuster of Altoona and taking him on a 33-mile trip from Cranberry Township to the Pittsburgh International Airport. Shuster - chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee - was accompanied also by Barry Schoch, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The route began in a suburb, then moved to the highway, where it reached speeds of around 65 miles per hour.
Five years ago, Shuster saw the first test model of the car, which he described as "so crammed full of equipment, there wasn't even room for a person inside." The car's come a long way since then - the 2011 Cadillac has effectively been transformed into a completely autonomous vehicle. The SRX is equipped with a set of radars, laser rangefinders, and infrared cameras, all of which combine to allow it to maneuver through traffic and determine the best routes.
Shuster, for his part, was extremely excited to see the vehicle in action, and said after the ride that he can now easily imagine a future where vehicles like the SRX enter the mainstream, bringing with them the potential to reduce accidents, congestion on roads, and fatality. There is, naturally, a military angle as well:
"It's going to be great for our military to be able to send vehicles into combat without people in them," commented Shuster.
Naturally, there's still quite a few challenges ahead if driverless vehicles are going to truly enter into the consumer market. One of the largest challenges, explained project leader Raj Rajkumar, is designing the software so that it's capable of managing unpredictable events.
"It takes a long time to be taught all the things we know about driving," he explained. "You can build a system that works correctly today - how do you know it's going to work well tomorrow? Because it's a new set of conditions, and you are unable to test all possible conditions. It's an infinite number."
Rajkumar believes that these vehicles could reach the market by as early as 2020. From where I stand, even if they do, it'll take far longer for society to catch up. For one, there's the matter of law. How exactly do we structure legalese around this new technology? If there's an accident or a violation, is it the fault of the driver or the fault of the application?
Not only that, there's the issue of glitches in the application. Even the best-designed programs tend to run into a few bugs every now and then. The difference here is that with standard computer systems, there's the potential to lose a bit of data. With the software installed in the new driverless cars, there's the potential for far, far worse. Hopefully security software - and the law - manages to keep up.