Self-driving cars are approaching fast — and safely

Having a hard time parallel parking? Press a button on a touch screen and let the car park itself.

Want to stay a safe distance from the car ahead while traveling 65 mph? Switch on adaptive cruise control and let a radar-linked computer handle the accelerator, slowing and speeding your vehicle to keep pace.

The assisted-driving technologies that just a few years ago seemed so futuristic are already here, bringing the auto industry one step closer to a George Jetson-like world where drivers may no longer have to drive.

“We are looking at science fiction becoming reality in a self-driving car,” Gov. Jerry Brown said Tuesday when he signed a bill that would allow self-driving cars on California’s roads.

Although that might be some years off, automakers already are pouring millions of dollars into systems that hand more control of a vehicle to a complex network of sensors and computers. Features such as collision avoidance systems that sense a potential crash and trigger the brakes or an alert that tells drivers they are wandering into adjacent lanes are making their way into more cars every year.

Industry, traffic and insurance experts believe that the advances are beginning to transform driving in a way that will reduce accidents and injuries.

“This is the future,” said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Vehicles are designed to protect people when crashes happen, but it would be even better to prevent crashes from happening altogether.”

Drivers are just beginning to experience these new features, and it’s not always without a hitch.

That’s what happened when Los Angeles attorney Randy Garrou test-drove the “intelligent parking assist” feature in a Toyota Prius v hybrid. The system backed the station wagon into a lamppost.

“If that had been a human, the person would have been wiped out,” said Garrou, who along with the salesman escaped injury. The experience left him thinking that such autonomous driving features “aren’t ready for prime time.”

An occasional glitch isn’t stopping the auto industry and technology companies from speeding into the self-driving car segment.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin said autonomous cars could be functional and safe for operation on public streets within a few years. Think autopilot.

But the concept of handing over the steering wheel to a computer is making some people ill at ease.

“It freaks me out,” said Michael Sigman, a writer and music publisher who lives in the Laurel Canyon section of Los Angeles. “It is totally fascinating, and I would like to see how they work, but the idea of thousands and millions of people ‘not’ driving around in these things is very scary.”

Despite the uneasiness, there is some evidence that the early autonomous driving functions are already improving safety.

Volvo’s City Safety, a low-speed forward collision avoidance system, is one feature that has been shown to be effective. The system is designed to help a driver avoid rear-ending another vehicle in slow-moving traffic.

The Highway Loss Data Institute compared insurance claims for the 2010 Volvo XC60 SUVs equipped with a forward collision avoidance system with claims for other 2009-10 mid-size luxury SUVs that don’t have the technology. The Volvos had 27% fewer property damage liability claims. They also had fewer claims for bodily injury.

Acura and Mercedes-Benz vehicles equipped with other types of collision avoidance systems that work at higher speeds had 14% fewer damage claims than those that didn’t have the technology, according to an institute study.

The auto insurance industry estimates that if all passenger vehicles were equipped with just four sensor-based alert systems — forward collision warning, lane departure warning, blind spot detection and adaptive headlights that pivot in the direction of travel based on steering wheel movement — about 1 in 3 fatal crashes and 1 out of 5 injury crashes could be prevented or have their severity lessened.

Transportation officials and safety regulators are pushing the technology even further, looking to a day when computers in a car communicate with other vehicles, traffic lights, toll roads and other traffic infrastructure.

Last month, about 3,000 vehicles equipped to share information about their speed and location hit the streets in Ann Arbor, Mich., as part of the largest road test to date of so-called connected vehicles.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, which is running the test in conjunction with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, says the test is an early step in developing a system that will enable cars to work with one another to figure out routes and traffic space to save time and fuel and increase safety.

Google believes that despite any mishaps with autonomous features working their way into vehicles now, completely self-driving vehicles will be safer and more convenient than cars driven by humans.

“Look at all the people who don’t have access to transportation today but still need to live their lives,” said Anthony Levandowski, head of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project.

“There are a lot of opportunities for making cars safer, more convenient and more accessible,” Levandowski said. “The fact that you have to drive your car all the time is kind of a bug in the car itself.”

Texting, for example, becomes safe when the car drives itself.

Google ran a trial with a blind person who usually spends two hours on public transit to go to work. Google’s experimental self-driving Prius — with a licensed driver at the controls for backup — was able to drive the person to work in just 30 minutes.

Brin believes such cars could provide transport to blind people who can’t drive or other individuals who shouldn’t drive.

“Some people have other disabilities, some people are too young, some people are too old, sometimes we’re too intoxicated,” Brin said.

Businesses could find commercial applications for self-driving vehicles such as taxi services or the delivery of pizza and other goods.

The Google team has about a dozen self-driving cars in operation — all with a human behind the wheel ready to take over at any time. The cars have driven a combined 300,000 miles in varied traffic conditions without any accidents while under computer control.

“It is very much like cruise control,” Levandowski said. “When you want the machine to drive, it will drive, but when you want you can grab the steering wheel or press the brake and the command is directly back in your hands.”

The cars operate by using cameras, radars and lasers to digitize the world and create a three-dimensional model inside the vehicle’s computer memory to tell it what is going on around the car.

“You then can create algorithms that dictate how the computer drives the vehicle,” Levandowski said.

Google has been funding the project on its own, thinking that it will eventually be able to license or sell the technology.

“The business model that emerges out of this is yet to be figured out,” Levandowski said.

The approach is not unlike what it did to create its core search engine. Google figured out later it could be a powerful, revenue-generating advertising format, he said.

There are still many kinks to be worked out. The suite of sensors feeding data to the computer is way too bulky and expensive to fit in a mass-produced car. The vehicles still have trouble mastering snow-covered roads, spotting and understanding temporary construction signals and handling other tricky situations.

The challenge is to make sure the sensors figuring out what the world looks like outside the car don’t get confused.

That’s why General Motors chose New York’s Brooklyn Bridge to test the autonomous functions it is building into its new Cadillac XTS and ATS sedans.

GM engineer Jim Nickolaou said the bridge’s “intricate metal design and traffic volume” helped his team tune radar sensors to separate permanent objects such as cables and guardrails from vehicle traffic.

“Metal structures can confuse some types of radar into sensing a vehicle or obstacle is approaching, causing an unnecessary warning or action from the safety systems,” he said.

GM and other automakers are taking incremental steps toward autonomous vehicles instead of attempting Google’s approach of building a vehicle that can operate entirely on autopilot.

“We can add more functions over time,” said Paul Mascarenas, chief technical officer of research and innovation at Ford. “We need to keep the driver in control and bring those technologies to the market in a way that is affordable.”