Merv isn't real, but self-driving cars are really coming

Ever hear about Merv Grazinski of Oklahoma City?

He’s the moron who thought the cruise control in his Winnebago worked like autopilot. Merv’s shiny new RV drove off the road at 70 mph and crashed after he went into the back to make himself some coffee.

See? Moron.

As it turns out, Merv is fictional, no matter how many times someone forwards you an e-mail insisting he’s real. So I feel safe in thinking that my name-calling will not offend him.

But Merv’s dream of letting his vehicle handle itself while he relaxes is not a complete fantasy anymore.

In this week’s issue of Automotive News, I wrote about research being done on technology that would let cars and trucks drive themselves. Google already has a whole fleet of self-driving cars that it has been testing on roads in California and Nevada.

Eventually, experts said at a recent conference on this topic in Detroit, self-driving cars will be able to save thousands of lives a year by getting rid of human error and get you where you want to go faster by using roads more efficiently.

The key here is “eventually.”

Completely self-driving cars are a long way off, maybe 20 years or more. Merv may not even be around to see them, though I have no idea how long the average fictional Oklahoman lives these days.

But at the same time, it might not be long at all before cars start driving themselves in certain situations, such as on expressways. Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi are among the companies working to make that a reality.

Early versions of the technology they are developing could appear on some high-end models around the middle of the decade. With the Traffic Jam Assist feature that Ford demonstrated last month, for example, the driver would be able to push a button and hand over control to the onboard computer when encountering congestion. The car then would use sensors to keep pace with traffic and steer based on input from cameras that read painted lane markings.

At the moment, though, no automaker is talking about creating a situation anytime soon in which the driver would be free to stop paying attention and watch a movie or eat a leisurely breakfast. (On a related note, the upcoming Fiat 500L crossover will be available, at least in Europe, with a built-in espresso maker. In Italy, this is undoubtedly viewed as a more historic achievement than a car that can drive itself.)

As self-driving technology starts to reach consumers, automakers, regulators, lawmakers and others will have to resolve numerous issues that will arise. Whoever created our fake friend Merv clearly understood the propensity for lawyers to get involved; as the story goes, Merv sued and was awarded $1.75 million and a new Winnebago.

The story has become so widely believed that Winnebago Industries debunks it on the “Contact” page of its Web site.

So the next time the outrageous tale of Merv arrives in your inbox, remember: Merv is made up, but Oklahoma is very real, and it’s one of several states considering legalizing and regulating autonomous vehicles. Merv would be proud, and he’d probably make even more money as a lobbyist than a confused crash victim.

Because one day, eventually, we may get to live in Merv’s world.

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