flying carWhen one thinks of futuristic modes of transportation, especially those portrayed in science fiction movies and TV shows, there is a decided trend in what people believe/hope personal transport will look like in the future. Our media portrayal of the future seems to predict hover cars, spaceships, and cars that can drive themselves. In the last week, both the private sector and the military have announced projects that will bring us much closer to some of these fantastical vehicles.

First, Google announced last Saturday that it is developing cars that drive themselves, and that these vehicles have already been through a significant amount of testing (on real roads, in traffic!). Second, DARPA (Defense Advance Research Projects Agency) announced on Tuesday that it has begun working with private sector contractors to build a self-flying Humvee.

Google’s project involves a fleet of normal vehicles equipped with artificial intelligence which allows it to follow speed limits, pursue a course to a pre-selected destination, react to traffic signals, sense objects nearby, and even warn the human driver about various events. Engineers believe that the technology that would drive autonomous cars would be much safer than human drivers because they “react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated.” It is believed that the improved safety would reduce congestion and increase road capacity because cars would be able to drive closer together but yet more safely. Downsides, of course, include a driver’s likely increased inattention and reliance on the car to respond to dangerous situations, which could prove more dangerous than if the human driver was solely responsible for the car.

DARPA’s Transformer program intends to “develop a robust ground vehicle that can transform into an air vehicle with vertical take-off and landing capability.” The Humvee would be able to travel hundreds of miles by land or in the air, carry soldiers, and have semi-autonomous flight. The automated controls would allow those not trained as pilots to fly the vehicles without much difficulty, which may eliminate the need for extra personnel, such as dedicated pilots. The Transformer Humvees will provide a much greater degree of versatility to military troops, particularly those in war zones, as they would have the ability to be armored while performing routine tasks on the ground, yet these vehicles could fly off if danger is discovered.

These projects show great promise, and real practical effects for both everyday drivers and the military. Though we may be many years away from having our cars drive us to school and work while we take naps in the backseat, earlier forms of this technology might be integrated by current manufacturers to ensure safer driving and help prevent accidents.

I, however, am still holding out hope for a really cool robotic driver, a la Johnny Cab from Total Recall.

Christine Hawes

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