EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA


October 7, 2012

Self-driving cars approaching fast -- and safely

LOS ANGELES — 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 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.

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