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That self-driving car in the rear-view mirror?

I saw a recent article in The New York Times in which Elon Musk (of Telsa fame) announced that by summer, his company would be bringing “autonomous technology” (i.e., the self-driving car) to market this summer.

“The technology would allow drivers to have their cars take control on what he called “major roads” like highways.”

“Mr. Musk said that a software update — not a repair performed by a mechanic — would give Tesla’s Model S sedans the ability to start driving themselves, at least part of the time, in a hands-free mode that the company refers to as autopilot.” (Source: NY Times)

Not that I have that long and terrible a commute, but there sure have been times when I wished that I had a car that I could put on “autopilot.” (If nothing else, I think that most parents have had moments on long road trips when they would have liked to have been able to hop into the back seat and referee!)

In any case, Mr. Musk may be getting ahead of himself.

For one thing, self-driving cars have not yet been legalized in most states, and, in the states where they have been given the green light, it’s for testing purposes only.

A Tesla spokesman did say that their new system will be legal, so it will probably be along the lines of the self-driving capabilities already available in some cars. They can do some self-driving, but the human-driver has to keep his or her hands on the wheel. (Which sounds a bit like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland.)

Another issue is insurance. If a self-driving car gets in an accident, who’s at fault, the car manufacturer? The software developer? The human driver?

Anyhow, sounds like Tesla is on its way, more or less:

Mr. Musk said on Thursday that Tesla had been testing its autopilot on a route from San Francisco to Seattle, with company drivers letting the car navigate the West Coast largely unassisted.

After the software update this summer, the cars can also be summoned by the driver via smartphone and can park themselves in a garage or elsewhere, he said. That feature, though, will be allowed only on private property for now, he said.

Certainly, the day is coming when there will be self-driving cars, and the day may be closer than we miht think.

After all, rapid transit systems have had driverless trains for years. (Most of the ones operating in the U.S. are in airports.)  And in you think about planes, that’s where the word autopilot comes from, no?

It will be interesting to see how rapidly this all plays out. As an engineer, I find the idea intriguing. But this is complex, high stakes technology, and, for now, I think I’d only be comfortable with it if it comes with manual over-ride. I’m not quite ready to sit there like a crash-test dummy…

Anyhow, that self-driving car in the rear-view mirror may be appearing sooner than you think.