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Driverless Cadillac performs flawlessly in road test

Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 5:57 p.m.

Like something out of a science-fiction flick, the computerized Cadillac SRX drove itself along Western Pennsylvania roads and interstates on Wednesday, delivering its human passengers safely to Pittsburgh International Airport.

“This is the future of transportation,” said PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch, who was part of a group that rode in the specially equipped, autonomous car for 33 miles from Cranberry to the airport as part of a demonstration by General Motors and Carnegie Mellon University students and staff. “I have 2-year-old twins, and I'm not sure if they'll be driving the way we are now.”

Some carmakers sell vehicles that can parallel park themselves and have accident-avoidance sensors that can help drivers steer clear of trouble. Schoch predicted the public could have driverless technology available by the end of the decade.

“It reminds me of (the car in the movie) ‘RoboCop.' I think it's exciting,” said Tracy Crain, 41, of Little Rock, who watched in wonder as members of the media took turns on short trips around the airport, sans driver. “It's a little exhilarating putting a lot of trust in a computer which may or may not apply common sense to situations, things that fall outside the box. But I think we've come a long way.”

The Cadillac SRX test drive was conducted with a human in the driver seat who could push a button to override the system and manually take control of the vehicle if needed. Another emergency button turns the system off in case of a problem.

Fully driverless technology has many benefits but has some hurdles, said Raj Rajkumar, who directs CMU's Department of Transportation-funded research center and co-directs the CMU-GM Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab where the vehicle was developed.

Rajkumar said the technology will reduce accidents, save lives, reduce traffic jams and allow people to continue driving as they grow old but noted there are technology challenges to address, such as response on snow-covered roads and firewalls to guard against hackers taking control of a fully computerized vehicle.

Lawmakers must work on driving laws and insurance issues, he said. A state police spokeswoman told the Trib on Tuesday there are no laws governing driverless vehicles on Pennsylvania roads.

Another issue is cost, though Raj­kumar would not disclose the cost of the driverless Cadillac that a team of 15 worked on for about 27 months. “This vehicle was costly, but costs will drop dramatically,” he said.

Rajkumar said his goal is to offer driverless technology as an option that would cost an extra $5,000 to $7,000 per vehicle.

The driverless car uses three types of sensors to navigate the roads — lasers, radar and cameras — and can detect surrounding traffic, the edge of roads and traffic lights and stop signs. Destination information is entered into a GPS device. The speed limits are based on the routes involved.

“So if there's an object in the road — one of the things we like to test is garbage cans, people leave those out and they get thrown in the road — the car actually sees that and can just nudge around it, drive around objects that are in the road,” said Jarrod Snider, the project's lead engineer.

Reporters took trips a few miles around the airport while Snider sat in the driver's seat, although he did not touch the wheel or the pedals. The car stopped at a stop sign, activated a turn signal, turned left after waiting for traffic, merged into highway traffic and accelerated past 60 mph, exited the road and pulled back into Pittsburgh International beside the terminal.

A computerized female voice alerted passengers when the vehicle was changing lanes. The automated steering guided the vehicle through traffic with only slight jerks during long exit-ramp curves.

“It's incredible. When I first got in the car, I was a little nervous, but it really is amazing to see this technology,” said Congressman Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, who is House transportation chairman.

Shuster said lawmakers must consider tweaking driving laws with driverless cars in mind.

“We need to have this discussion on a national level, and states have to think about that,” he said.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or




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