Self-driving cars will still need human help

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- On the way to dinner one night this week here, my wife and I spotted a large deer standing by the side of a lonely two-lane country road. It was warily watching traffic, perhaps wondering when it could try to cross.

What would a vehicle with an automated driving system do if a deer suddenly appeared out of nowhere?

Ask suppliers if the technology exists that enables an automated vehicle to see through fog and read the lines on the road in a snowstorm. They’ll tell you no.

Forget the hype. Self-driving vehicles are a long way off, and when they do arrive, what they actually do will probably be a lot less than our image of automated driving.

The reality is that a human will still have to sit behind the steering wheel and be ready at a moment’s notice to take full control of the vehicle. That’s one of the issues government regulators around the world are debating.

Robert Bosch, the industry’s largest supplier, says the technology must be “100 percent safe 100 percent of the time” before it can be used. Today’s systems are nowhere near that level of capability.

So the possibility is remote that you’ll get into a vehicle someday soon, flick on the voice recognition system and instruct the vehicle to take you to work while you sit in the back seat and read.

Yes, the technology already can drive automatically in some situations at low and high speeds with lane departure warning systems, electric power steering and adaptive cruise control. But safety will require an alert driver for a long time to come.

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