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LA show: Self-driving autos may be just few years away

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Los Angeles — While driverless cars face regulatory hurdles, experts at the Los Angeles Auto Show’s Connected Car Expo say the technologies that enable them are known and that a timeline is beginning to emerge as to when consumers can expect semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles.

Driving these bold predictions is intense competition between some of the biggest corporations on earth and governments intent on showcasing their leadership in 21st-century technologies.

“The Tesla Model S is the state-of-the-art autonomous car today,” said Brian Droessler, vice president for Connected Solutions at auto supplier Continental, following “The Long and Winding Road to Autonomous” forum. “They have the technology in place on the car, and now they have the ability to update it with software over the air.”

The Tesla and the Volvo XC90 available for the 2016 model year make extensive use of stereoscopic cameras and radar that allow vehicles to avoid collisions, stay in lanes, and — in the case of the Tesla — change lanes when a turn signal is activated.

Mercedes and General Motors are also working on similar technologies in their S-Class and CT6 luxury vehicles. These are so-called “Tier 2” semi-autonomous vehicles that require a driver, while driverless cars are referred to as Tier 4.

“In three-to-five years, cars will pull out of the garage, pick up their owner who will set a destination, then drive to that destination without ever touching the wheel,” says Karl Brauer, senior editor for Kelley Blue Book. “What’s accelerated this change are companies like Google, Apple, and General Motors all vying to be first with this technology.”

That race is building partnerships between big consumer electronics firms and automobile companies never before seen. Representatives from tech giants like QUALCOMM and NVidia attend the Los Angeles show, where their powerful computer chips are used in show cars.

But it’s not just companies that want to be first. Governments are also setting target dates for their own moonshots.

Continental’s Droessler points to comments last month by Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promising that the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will be a showcase for driverless cars. “Autonomous cars will be seen driving around Tokyo in 2020,” he said at a scientific forum.

Governments are a key hurdle to fully autonomous cars. “Regulation is a huge challenge with 50 states in the U.S. alone with different laws,” said Thomas Form, an engineer with Volkswagen’s Electronic and Vehicle Research. “The industry is eager to have one global standard.”

But governments are also speeding autonomous vehicles.

“A big step will be cities like London that are already charging vehicles to come into the city to relieve congestion,” says KBB’s Brauer. “Autonomous vehicles will be allowed to operate free because governments see them as safer and less prone to accidents.”

Continental’s Droessler sees the costs of camera and radar technologies decreasing rapidly, so they will soon be available across the vehicle lineup, not just in luxury vehicles.

The missing piece in autonomous technology today, he says, is LIDAR, a spinning array consisting of lasers, cameras, and radar that scans 360 degrees to detect objects. LIDAR systems today run from $12,000 to $75,000 (for the more sophisticated “bubblegum machines” atop Google’s self-driving vehicle.

“LIDAR’s costs will need to come down under $1,000 per vehicle,” says Droessler.

Even with semi-autonomous vehicles on the road in the next five years, both Brauer and Form say that weather will be a challenge since cameras and radar will be less effective when snow creates covered roads and poor visibility.

“There will be situations where the car will be overwhelmed,” says Form. “There will be accidents.”

Henry Payne is The Detroit News auto critic and can be reached at