Washington Evening Journal
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Neighbors Growing Together | Apr 17, 2014

Cars that drive (and fly?) themselves

By Andy Hallman | Apr 11, 2012

There are a few recent inventions that relate to cars that have caught my eye. They both could revolutionize transportation. One is a car that drives itself and the other is a car that turns into an airplane. I’ll give you a moment while you pick your jaw up off the ground.

The self-driving car was pioneered by Google. It is well beyond the testing stage and the closed-course demonstrations. The car has already been driven on busy highways outside San Francisco with a human passenger inside. The car has a device on its roof which uses lasers to detect the presence of other cars on the road, stop signs, stop lights and pedestrians. As of last fall, the company’s self-driving cars had logged 160,000 miles without an accident.

The self-driving cars are not going solo yet. A human has accompanied them on all their trips thus far. The human sits in the front and has the ability to override the computer’s commands. That is important, because that is what makes the cars legal, at least in the opinion of the police department of Morgan Hill, Calif. In late March, a blind man named Steve Mahan sat in the driver’s seat of Google’s self-driving car as it whisked him throughout the city of Morgan Hill, dropping him off at the dry cleaners and a restaurant. A company representative rode in the passenger’s seat with his own steering wheel and brake pedal.

As reported in the L.A. Times, the city police said that as long as a licensed driver has the ability to stop the vehicle, it is no different from a driver’s ed student taking the wheel.

The real question about self-driving cars at this point is what rules legislatures will impose on them. If the law requires self-driving cars to be manned by a licensed driver who can override their commands, that’s going to limit their usefulness. That would be of little help to blind people like Mahan, who would still need a human chaperone to accompany him in the car.

One neat idea I heard was that a self-driving car could drop its passengers off at the entrance to a building and then park itself a block or two away. If the cars need a driver in them at all times, that won’t be possible.

The other car-related invention I’m excited about is the car-plane hybrid. The invention is known as “The Transition” and completed its first test flight in New York in March. In the air, the Transition looks like any other small commuter plane. What distinguishes it from other planes is that its wings can fold in and can it be driven on city streets and parked in a single-car garage. The vehicle uses unleaded automotive fuel, so you can pull it up to any gas station in town.

If this “flying car” can pass all the safety hurdles, I’d bet that we’ll see a lot more people take flying lessons in the future. Or will we? Before long, flying cars will be flying themselves.

 

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