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Will cars ever be able to drive themselves?

The technology is coming, but will drivers really be ready to give up the wheel?

By Jennifer Sutton

According to Emilio Frazzoli, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, the answer is both yes and no.  

He points out that autonomous driving systems already exist — cruise control and Automatic Braking Systems (ABS), for example — that help drivers by automatically controlling certain functions of a vehicle. These kinds of capabilities will keep improving, Frazzoli says, and will play an ever-increasing role. 

Autonomous vehicles won’t, of course, work everywhere. “My colleagues and I often talk about how to get an autonomous car to drive through Harvard Square,” Frazzoli says. “That’s a difficult problem, and it’s probably not the right problem to solve.” But on highways in and around cities, where lots of people commute to work, “autonomous vehicles will become commonplace,” he says. He calls this “commodity transportation” and foresees it heading in the direction of communal Zipcars: a vehicle driving itself to pick up one party, transporting them to where they need to go, then going off to pick up someone else, or parking itself. 

A realistic implementation of that model, however, is at least 20 or 30 years down the road. Frazzoli points out that today most people own their own cars —and their associated costs: fuel, maintenance, time in traffic, and the real estate upon which they can park. In order for a meaningful transition to occur, Frazzoli says, “we need to make technical advances, and we need to have more confidence we put in these systems.” There are, he adds, a range of regulatory problems and policy issues related to autonomous vehicles. How, for example, do you insure a car that drives itself? The bottom line: our concept of urban driving has to change. 

Frazzoli notes that even if engineers and auto companies manage to create fleets of self-driving vehicles someday, there will always be a need for those that depend on their drivers. “If you go for a joyride in a sports car or on a motorcycle or an ATV — there’s no point in these vehicles becoming automated,” he says. “The purpose is the driving.”

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