Uncomfortable ride ahead for America's driverless car

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The Independent Online
IN THE car park of a Californian horse-race track, a curious spectacle is under way. A silver-grey Buick LeSabre, a comfortable sedan preferred by middle-aged, middle-class middle Americans, is careening round parked cars at speeds of up to 40mph. On closer inspection, the driver is reading a newspaper. As the Buick rounds a corner, following a half-mile track of magnets buried in the Tarmac, a car wanders into its path. The dashboard emits a squeak and the Buick slows as French engineer Benedict Bouglar takes the wheel and guides it off a collision course.

"Sometimes," she says, "we have ridden this car with our feet out of the window." The Buick, loaded with $30,000 (pounds 18,750) worth of equipment including computer-driven brakes, throttle, and steering, was developed as part of an experiment in converting America's freeways into a giant Scalextric track.

The Buick and researchers at the University of California at Berkley gathered here this week to concede that its time has not quite yet come, but say it points to the inevitable future for the family car.

Sitting in the driver's seat of the so-called driverless car was like taking a joy-ride with Hal. As the steering wheel twitched and turned in little jerks, the car cut through a narrow path of bollards, cornered at about 35mph, sped up and then slowed for a road bump, and finally threw passengers from side to side in an abrupt left-right swerve.

"Automated control on," announces a soft female computer voice. "Approaching destination." In 1994 the US government set aside $200m in funding over seven years for a consortium of university researchers and private firms to develop a prototype Automated Highway System.

Last year, 10 Buick LeSabres drove themselves in convoy down a stretch of California motorway, at speeds of 65 mph and as little as 12 feet apart. The Clinton administration, apparently unimpressed, cut off funding this year, in favour of exploring less ambitious forms of roadway control. The system is relatively low-tech, with a magnometer in the car following magnets sunk into the road. In theory, the car's computers take control when it enters the freeway, then hands over to the driver at the exit.

Californians increasingly complain that their lives are ruined by traffic. Engineers at the University of California are working on "intelligent transportation" projects, in collaboration with the California transport department.

Karl Hedrick, a Berkeley professor who heads the research effort, said: "We are trying to solve a congestion problem as well as a safety problem."

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