Articles, activities for boomers & seniors
Let us drift back in time to when you first learned to drive. Forget the panicked look on your instructor's face and think about the feeling of freedom you had as you anticipated going where you wanted when you wanted. Ah, the dreams of youth!
There is another dream driving automotive engineers, entrepreneurs, and expectant techies in the 21st century: self-driving cars. Somewhere between 2018 and 2020, they would be available to the public. Ooops. It turns out that mimicking the nuances of human drivers is a lot more difficult than first thought.
There are systems in modern cars that take on some of the responsibilities of drivers, such as brakes that automatically engage when a collision seems imminent; headlights and rear-view mirrors that dim under the right conditions; steering wheels that jerk you back into your lane when you start to drift; radar that detects intruders in your car's "personal space"; and cruise control that automatically accelerates, shifts, and brakes, without your intervention.
These are driver-assist features that are helpful but far from autonomous. They can't make eye contact with other drivers, react to weather conditions, or yell at the guy who cut you off (which is probably for the best).
Engineers are undeterred, and they are test cars under real-world conditions to "teach" the software how to emulate a driver's reaction to conditions such as weather and "the Pittsburgh left," the tendency for Pennsylvania drivers to turn left despite lacking the right-of-way.
Top companies are competing to get the first self-driving cars on the market, and they are using Pennsylvania roads as test tracks. While it is not likely that you will be passing (or passed by) a self-driving test car on your way to work, school, or the store, they are out there, mostly in the western part of the state.
They are not just driving around willy-nilly; companies must apply for authorization and supply information about their routes and personnel before they can test their cars.
Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh has been researching self-driving technology since the mid-'80s, so much of the testing has been done in that area. Testing has been approved to expand to the Philadelphia, and even Bucks County, area as well.
Don't expect to see a car without a visible driver pass by soon, like a character out of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow;" in Pennsylvania, the cars must carry a driver capable of taking over.
So, for now, your dream of taking a nap while driving to the beach is still a dream — cars have a long way to go, as it were, and a lot to learn, to catch up to us mortals.