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Testing out driverless car brings thoughts of ‘Look Mom, no hands!’

Don’t kid yourself. Even now, there’s that little kid temptation to stick your arms out the car window and yell as loud as you can, “look Mom, no hands!”

No, we didn’t do it and no one else did either. This, after all, was a gathering of serious engineers, folks eager to learn about futuristic, self-driving cars and what makes them run. This was no time for mischief.

On this warm sunny Friday, this was instead a time to stop and look into the not-so-distant future, a time when autonomous vehicles may be the norm, not the exception.

It was also a time for reluctant, even skeptical, politicians and journalists to climb inside and experience a car without a driver. Except for a few sudden stops and starts, you wouldn’t have noticed the difference.

Even more important, perhaps, the Texas company that brought the retrofitted 2006 Ford Explorer to the University at Buffalo will tell you, without hesitation, that these cars of tomorrow also are safer.

And that’s also because there’s no human at the wheel.

“They’re not distracted,” Purser Sturgeon II of the Southwest Research Institute said of the numerous sensors and cameras in the car. “They’re always working and they can see things you can’t.”

For motorists of a different generation, the notion of a driverless car conjures up images of the Jetsons. But they’re real and they’re here – now.

While escorting his passengers around the parking lot at UB, Sturgeon sat in the driver’s seat but rarely touched the steering wheel, instead relying on a tablet controlling the car’s numerous computerized systems.

There’s a system for navigating the car, in essence telling it where to go and how to get there.

There’s also a perception system that relies on radar, cameras and other technologies to identify other cars, pedestrians and potential hazards.

And finally, there’s a localization system that, among other things, sets and adjusts the car’s speed.

On the surface, it sounds almost space age, but Surgeon is quick to remind anyone who will listen that many of the core elements in the car’s systems have their roots in technologies that have been around for years.

Think cruise control and collision warning systems.

“A lot of the core pieces that are needed for autonomous vehicles are already out there,” said Sturgeon.

There is one big difference and that’s the bright red knob near the driver. There’s no label but you quickly learn it’s important, a kind of life-or-death thing.

Yes, that’s what you press if things go wrong and, as the driver, you need to take back control of the vehicle.

Now nine years old, the self-driving car project at Southwest Research in San Antonio is already producing results for its clients, including the military. Sturgeon said a driverless Humvee recently made its debut in Afghanistan.

The biggest obstacle, of course, is finding a way to bring self-driving cars to the general public and that means lowering what is now a prohibitive price tag.

The computer hardware in the company’s Ford Explorer cost about $60,000, said Michael A. Brown, a staff engineer at Southwest.

Sounds high except when you consider that same type of hardware cost $500,000 when the project started in 2007.

Brown said the nation’s car companies, and they are all knee deep in this, are also dealing with other hurdles, including something as simple as identifying and navigating a puddle of water.

“How do you pick up that water?” Brown asked. “And how deep is the water?”

Known as Marti, short for Mobile Autonomous Robotics Technology Initiative, Southwest’s Ford Explorer was on its way back from a demonstration in Saratoga when it stopped at the North Campus in Amherst.

Sturgeon said UB, which has a growing transportation-related engineering program, reached out to the company and expressed interest in bringing the car here.

“A few years ago, who would have thought we would even be having this conversation,” said County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

Poloncarz, one of the many who climbed inside the SUV on Friday, says the county will look into how self-driving cars could be used in county government.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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