A driverless car being put through it's paces in Berlin, 2010 (Getty)
Detroit, MI (written by Alisa Priddle/Detroit Free Press) -- It could be 20 years before self-driving cars become mainstream, but the technology could transform the auto industry and transportation in general, speakers said at the first-ever Driverless Car Summit in Detroit on Tuesday.
"The impact on the industry could be huge as we move towards vehicles that drive themselves," said Gary Smyth, head of the North American Science Labs at General Motors. "What we do in the next five to 10 years in this industry will be critical."
There are already vehicles on the road loaded with radar, sensors and other technology that allow them to steer, accelerate and brake based on signals from their surroundings.
"The impact on humanity would be huge," Smyth said.
Autonomous driving addresses such global issues as urbanization, congestion, safety, the environment and connected living, Smyth said. It could enhance freedom for older drivers and open new avenues for those who have never driven before, such as the blind.
"It is pretty powerful to do this," said Mark Riccobono, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind, who made history in January 2011 by becoming the first legally blind person to drive. He piloted a Ford Escape around the Daytona Speedway, a feat made possible by new technology in the car. For the blind population, "this is our going to the moon," Riccobono said.
Google has developed a fleet of self-driving cars, each decked out with about $150,000 of equipment. Google has logged 250,000 test miles, said tech lead Chris Urmson.
Urmson hopes the technology is mainstreamed sooner than the 20-year forecasts offered by some summit attendees.
"I'm trying to push it ahead," he said, adding the hurdles are not legislation or technology, but consumer acceptance.
Google has lobbied to get Nevada and California to pass laws governing self-driving cars. Similar bills have been introduced in Florida, Hawaii and Oklahoma.
Michigan has yet to pursue legislation, but Gov. Rick Snyder said he is a proponent of driverless cars as the next logical step toward efficient mobility.
"I'd be happy to look at it," Snyder said at the two-day conference organized by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
The mandate of the summit is to lay out a foundation for driverless cars for the next 10 years, said Michael Toscano, president of AUVSI.
Snyder offered Michigan's partnership and support. Because he must now be chauffeured as governor, he said he has come to appreciate the ability to use drive time to get work done."We need to be careful of what's on the road but other states have gone forward," Snyder told reporters after his speech. "We're the motor state and we should be thoughtful and move forward on things like that."