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Future may be closer than thought as age of driverless cars advances

A car that can drive itself would allow occupants to while away their time texting, reading, grooming, talking on their cellphone -- in short, all the things they do now that cause crashes and tragedy.

The technology for a fully automated car will be on display this fall in Orlando, and supporters say it's closer to reality than most might imagine.

"That's our long-term vision -- cars that drive themselves and, as such, cars that do not crash," said Nady Boules, director of General Motors Co.'s electrical-control integration laboratory in Warren, Mich.

Sometime within the next decade, he predicted, cars will be capable of going from point A to point B without any human involvement.

Much closer to reality than driverless vehicles are "connected cars" equipped with sensors and onboard computers that enable them to dodge moving vehicles or even stationary objects.

Driverless cars have been tested, using autos already on the showroom floor as well as experimental vehicles. In 2007, a Chevrolet Tahoe navigated 55 miles on an abandoned Air Force base in California, interacting with cars being driven and other pilotless vehicles.

The U.S. Transportation Department estimates that connected vehicles could reduce accidents involving unimpaired drivers by 80 percent.

The autos would rely on devices that would have a monitoring range of about a quarter-mile, reading signals sent out from other equipped cars, plus units placed at traffic lights or stop signs.

Information such as a car's location and speed would be exchanged constantly.

So, Boules said, if the car in front slows and the driver behind misses the change, the trailing vehicle automatically would slow. More significantly, a car about to pass through a green light might stop if another auto were running the red light.

The system also might alert the driver with a beep or a warning, allowing the motorist to make an adjustment.

In 2013, Boules said, key decisions will be made at the federal level about the research GM and seven other automakers are conducting on connected cars. Possibilities range from a law mandating installation of the systems to simply allowing automotive sales to determine what comes next.

Boules said installing the technology in new cars is relatively cheap, in part because they already have much of what would be needed, including speakers and screens for satellite GPS.

Older cars could get the same results by purchasing devices that would plug into a lighter socket like a GPS, he said. He would not discuss pricing.

In October, connected cars will be tested on the racetrack at Walt Disney World, said Mike Pina, a Transportation Department spokesman. The test will involve cars from different manufacturers, and as many as 100 people will be recruited to drive.

"What we have not done is see how real people will do," Pina said.

One potential problem for these high-tech advancements could be privacy. Connected-car devices would constantly track the whereabouts of each vehicle.

But Boules said such monitoring already occurs with the onboard computers and GPS programs linked to centers that send assistance in a breakdown or accident.

On the plus side, Boules contends insurance could be cheaper for cars equipped with avoidance systems, much as safety belts resulted in lower rates.

But, he cautioned, the devices would not absolve the person behind the wheel in an accident.

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