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Commentary: Look ma, no hands

Jerry Deschane is the president and owner of Deschane Communications LLC, a lobbying, consulting and communications firm specializing in the construction industry.

By Jerry Deschane

Autonomous vehicles are heading toward a road near you, and probably sooner than you expect.

People in the vehicle industry say we have about seven years before driverless cars will be ready for general driving conditions. Four states have legalized operation of the vehicles, and a bill has been introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature to make us number five.

The Wisconsin bill would allow the operation of a vehicle with autonomous technology and places limits on what an autonomous car can or can’t do. The first limit is that there must be a licensed driver on board who can take over. And the last limit is that the owner of the car has to carry at least $5 million of insurance.

A cynic might see that insurance tab and decide to stay on the sidewalk from now on.

We all knew this day was coming. Backup alarms on vehicles are pretty standard and backup video cameras no longer are a novelty. Headlights follow around turns, and alarm beepers tell you whether you’re going to change lanes into the underbelly of a dump truck.

Some high-end cars will brake for you if they sense a hazard ahead. Most of the gadgets already are available. Now it’s a matter of putting it all together into one package.

According to the online magazine Automotive News, there are two consensuses forming among the auto manufacturers. First, they don’t want to revisit the VHS vs. Betamax debate about “the right format” that wasted a few billion dollars in the 1970s. Second, the new systems need to talk to each other.

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, gets into a self-driven car Sept. 4 in Cranberry, Pa. The Cadillac SRX that was modified by Carnegie Mellon University went along local roads and highways operated by a computer that uses inputs from radars, laser rangefinders, and infrared cameras as it made a 33-mile trip to the Pittsburgh International Airport. A Carnegie Mellon engineer was in the driver's seat as a safety precaution. (AP photo by Keith Srakocic)

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, gets into a self-driven car Sept. 4 in Cranberry, Pa. The Cadillac SRX that was modified by Carnegie Mellon University went along local roads and highways operated by a computer that uses inputs from radars, laser rangefinders, and infrared cameras as it made a 33-mile trip to the Pittsburgh International Airport. A Carnegie Mellon engineer was in the driver’s seat as a safety precaution. (AP photo by Keith Srakocic)

Apparently, autonomous cars need to send signals to one another. It might or might not be similar to the “signal” you sent the guy who cut you off on the way to work this morning.

I’m looking forward to listening to the debate in the Wisconsin Legislature about this one. As Allstate Insurance put it in a 2011 survey, Americans tend to believe they are much better drivers than their behavior supports.

Allstate reported 64 percent of survey respondents rated their own driving habits as “excellent,” or at least “very good.” The same survey sample found that 54 percent of them had been in at least one accident, and another 18 percent admitted to driving drunk at least once.

As for their friends? Forget it. The Allstate survey reported that, while Americans consider themselves excellent drivers, they view other drivers as hopeless. Survey respondents only gave 22 percent of other drivers as high a rating as themselves.

 

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