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Would you let your car drive itself in stop-and-go traffic?

Ready for initial testing in 2016, autonomous cars will react faster and more reliably than humans are capable of doing.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Automated driving has moved closer to becoming a reality.

Continental, the German automotive systems supplier, received a licence from the state of Nevada in December to begin testing automated vehicles on Nevada roads. Test vehicles will have special red licence plates and must have a driver at the wheel in case things go wrong.

In getting the licence, Continental revealed a plan that puts Fully Automated driving on high-speed highways in 2025. Partially Automated driving comes first in 2016 and Highly Automated driving could happen by 2020.

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Here's what the terms mean: Fully Automated means the driver does nothing and the car races along highways at 130 km/h. Highly Automated is basically the same but at lower speeds. Partially Automated is just around the corner and it means the car drives itself in stop-and-go traffic jams at speeds below 30 km/h. With both the "Partially" and "Highly" levels of automation, however, the driver must be able to take control of the vehicle at all times.

The example engineers trot out is, of course, the use of auto-pilots in aviation. Pilots would never say they "set it and forget it," but automated systems control aircraft en route and maintain proper separation from other aircraft with little or no pilot input. Automotive engineers say the same technology can take the monotony out of long-distance journeys on major highways.

The Nevada test vehicles will for the most part use systems and sensors that Continental already supplies to manufacturers. There are four short-range radar sensors (two at the front, two at the rear), one long-range radar and a stereo camera. The vehicle is able to track all objects as they enter into the sensors' field of view. The information is then processed and passed on to a "Motion Domain Controller" that sends signals to the engine, brakes and steering.

So if it work out as planned, by 2020, you should be able to eat breakfast, read the newspaper or surf the web as you drive. The 2016 automated stop-and-go driving is a done deal – it's just a matter of rolling it out in new cars. The promise of all this is that automatically controlled vehicles will be safer because of the interaction between the vehicle and its environment. Autonomous cars will react faster and more reliably than humans are capable of doing.

Eventually, automated vehicles will also be able to communicate with each other. They will be able to alert to other autonomous cars that there's a car being driven in a dangerous way ahead of them and react. An automated car would know that there was someone approaching unseen from a side street too quickly and perform an emergency stop.

David Strickland, head of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said recently that self-driving cars have the potential to save "thousands and thousands of lives." Strickland says human error played a part in around 90 per cent of the more than 33,000 traffic deaths on American roads in 2010. He called automated vehicles the "next evolutionary step" for cars.

But the technology is only one part of the story; the other part is the legality of self-driving cars. What happens when an automated car gets into an accident? It will happen. Who's liable for damages? The computer maker, the software or the driver who wasn't driving? Answering all the legal questions could delay the automated driving timetable that hopeful engineers and safety officials are eagerly laying out.

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