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Vehicle of future forgoes the driver

| Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Forget about granite interior trim, built-in champagne coolers and diamond-studded tire rims.

Today's must-have automotive accessory is autonomous operation — a vehicle capable of driving itself.

PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch and U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Altoona, illustrated that fact on Wednesday. The pair traveled from Cranberry to Pittsburgh International Airport in a computer-operated car designed by Carnegie Mellon University researchers.

The 2011 Cadillac relied on radars, infrared cameras, lasers and other high-tech equipment to make the 33-mile trip. Had this happened while Henry Ford was still alive, the driverless vehicle probably would have had the Model T developer attempting an exorcism to cast out the demons under the hood.

“Begone, license-lacking agents of Satan!” he might have cried as the holy water thrown on the hot engine instantly turned to steam. “Find other means of transport back to Hades!”

Experts predict computer-operated cars will hit dealerships in a few years. When they do, expect demand to be high because the primary benefit of owning one is obvious: When in a car, people no longer will be annoyingly distracted from more important things by the mundane task of driving.

Instead, they will be free to leisurely concentrate on undertakings they now rush to complete while idling at a red light: phone calls, texts, makeup application, dental flossing, nasal hair trimming, gift wrapping and nitrous oxide huffing.

Computer-operated vehicles would provide liberating transportation options to constituencies that many people unfairly believe should have no right to be behind the wheel. These groups would include, but certainly aren't limited to, those who are preadolescent, drunk, drugged or deceased.

That's not to say there wouldn't be some bumps in the road if computer-operated cars become commonplace. Suppose a sensor suddenly fails on the highway at night, and the vehicle begins weaving erratically and is pulled over by a suspicious police officer.

“Sir, were you aware that you kept crossing back and forth into the other lane?”

“Really? No, officer. I was on my laptop looking for a movie to watch online when I get home. The computer is driving.”

“I see. And has the computer been defragmenting at all this evening?”

“Well ... maybe a file or two over dinner, officer. But it wasn't defragging to the point where its driving ability was impaired.”

“I'll be the judge of that. Sir, I'm going to have to ask you and the central processing unit to step out of the vehicle.”

That's not the only potentially problematic issue. The lines at PennDOT driver's license centers could get a lot longer because a significantly higher percentage of patrons would be requesting picture retakes.

Circuit boards can be incredibly vain.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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