In 1985, Carnegie Mellon University announced that its first driverless vehicle, Terregator, could make its way across a football field in about an hour.
Now, with CMU's fourteenth generation of automated vehicles, a silver Cadillac SUV, able to manage up to 70 miles per hour, state government officials are finally taking regulatory steps to prepare for what they describe as the inevitable rise of driverless vehicles over the coming decades.
At a test-drive event in Schenley Park on Wednesday, state senators announced new legislation that would set ground rules for cars that drive themselves. If Senate Bill 1268 becomes law, automated vehicles would need to have a licensed driver sitting behind the wheel or able to operate the car remotely; they'd need $5 million in insurance; and owners would need to sign a contract with the state for each test drive of an automated vehicle.
But as driverless cars become more common, those rules would be subject to change: a newly formed Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force is charged with keeping state laws up to date. The task force includes officials from state, local and federal government agencies, along with representatives from universities and private companies like Uber and AAA.
CMU professor and driverless car researcher Raj Rajkumar said his vehicle’s technology still requires human intervention sometimes – but that might not always be the case.
“Over the next 10 years or so, I do expect that the human license, human driver needs to be in the driver’s seat just in case, to take over when necessary," Rajkumar said. "But then, as these vehicles become more pervasive across the country over the next 20 to 30 years, I think some of these licensing requirements and regimens need to be revisited.”
During Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation Leslie Richards' test-drive in Rajkumar's latest automated vehicle Wednesday, the professor said the car was driving itself about 98 percent of the time.
Secretary Richards said it will be a slow transition from today's cars to automated vehicles.
“There are issues of culture and public acceptance from a society that, for the last 100 years, has identified taking the wheel and hitting the road as one of the clearest expressions of freedom,” Richards said.
However, she added that self-driving cars could have the potential to reduce accidental deaths and expand transportation options for those who can't drive for medical reasons.
Professor Rajkumar said his university's latest car gathers information about its surroundings from a combination of cameras, radar, and lasers. It uses roughly the equivalent of four desktop computers to process the data and navigate routes, eventually sending direct commands to the steering wheel, brakes, gas pedal and transmission.
Rajkumar readily admitted it will be decades before driverless cars become mainstream. He said the main challenges he's facing right now are inclement weather situations, high costs and the difficulty of programming unusual scenarios into the cars' computer systems.