Henry Ford’s Model T was the automobile’s first major leap over a century ago. Now, companies like Google and Tesla are rapidly developing what seems to be the car’s next stop: driving itself.
Autonomous cars have been around since the mid-eighties. In 1984, Carnegie Mellon University’s Navlab robot vans could achieve speeds of up to 20 mph on the road, while running five rows of onboard computers and a remote supercomputer. In 1995, the Eureka PROMETHEUS (PROgraMme for a European Traffic of Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety) project, the result of work from Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Peugeot, and Jaguar in collaboration with Bundeswehr University Munich, built a car that drove itself the 600-plus miles from Munich to Copenhagen.
A number of companies have recently been focusing on making this technology safe enough to become commercialized. According to the World Health Organization, in 2015 1.25 million people were killed in automobile related deaths, with the US receiving particularly low marks for driver safety. Researchers are working hard to make their computers better drivers than humans, with visible progress. KQED Science reports that autonomous cars can be fully operational in some cities in three years’ time, even though driving safely with no non-experimental conditions could take three decades.
Transportation service Uber has been using Pittsburgh as testing grounds since 2015. It was allowed to bring about 100 self-driving cars as long as they each have someone in the driver’s seat. Google’s Silicon Valley researchers have been test-not-driving their cars all around Mountain View, California, and major motor companies like Nissan have been partnering with Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and other major universities. The Huffington Post reports that Daimler, a German auto company, is developing 18-wheelers in Nevada. Several major companies have announced that a large wave of self-driving cars are slated to be developed by 2020, with Tesla predicting that their models will be completely self-sufficient by 2018.
But what about the potential local impact of this technology? The RHS High Times reached out to Sgt. Brian Pullman of the Ridgewood Police Department Traffic Bureau to ask him about how the Village of Ridgewood is anticipating self-driving vehicles. Pullman says that he hasn’t seen any yet: “If you’re referring to completely self driven cars, where no driver is in the car, I’m not aware of any, nor aware of any plans to bring them here,” he says. “But I’m certain there are a few assisted driving vehicles. I know there are plenty of Teslas in the Village that may have the capability.”
If the cars do arrive here, he would embrace them. “Personally I’m a big proponent of new technology,” he says. “I think the driver-assisted self driving cars are very interesting. The cars are programmed to closely follow the rules of the road. From what I understand, they receive speed limit information from both GPS programming and from reading the signs on the road. In self-driving mode, this may actually help to reduce speeds of cars who often drive in excess of posted limits. I think in today’s world there is a large challenge with distracted drivers; texting, calls, Facebook, etc., and a self driving car may help with that.”
The department has reckoned with new technology in the past. Pullman says that it’s a matter of balancing innovation with established law-enforcement practices. “Over my police career, there have been many new technologies that have come into our field,” he says. “When I first joined the police department [in 1999], we had a few cars that had video cameras. The systems then were not very good and were not used often. Now we have HD cameras in all of our patrol cars and they are used everyday. I know some officers had a learning curve getting used to the cameras, but overall they’re widely liked by our officers.”
Graphic: Jessica Chang