General Motors former head of Research and Development, Larry Burns, has been looking to the future, and he sees driverless cars hitting the road as soon as 2020. The notion of removing human interaction from the equation may be unsettling, but developers have long maintained that driverless technologies would reduce the risks associated with distracted or impaired driving and improve fuel efficiency by preventing the unnecessary stop-starting of vehicles.

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Larry Burns isn’t predicting that we’ll suddenly see a launch of driverless cars on the market, but rather that we’ll experience the gradual integration of intelligent technologies into new vehicles. Speaking at the University of Michigan’s Robotics Day, he stated “It’s not going to be one breakthrough that gets it to the point where it excites customers. We’re not going to go from driving our cars to not driving our cars overnight, it’s going to be a gradual transition. Hopefully this picture will motivate people to build on it, but it’s a great opportunity.”

As for how this development will take shape, Burns sees that “[b]y 2015 we’re going to have auto companies selling features that are akin to cruise control on steroids… We’re in this five- to 10-year window when it’s going to be really exciting,” indeed, we’ve already seen luxury car-maker Porsche head in this direction. Burns believes such moves will mean that “by 2020 we’ll have self driving cars.”

Google has been at the forefront of autonomous driving for several years now. Approaching the technology from the perspective of computer programmers — able to power advanced GPS systems on board laser and sensor equipped cars — they’ve racked up an impressive 200,000 (almost) incident free miles in their seven driverless vehicles. But auto manufacturers too have been dabbling in the idea. In 2007 GM developed a driverless Chevy Tahoe, which won a 55-mile race sponsored by the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

But Chevrolet has been hard at work on smaller-scale self-driving vehicles than their adapted Tahoe. The unbelievably cute Chevrolet EN-V concept cars are distinctly ‘pod’ like. The electric vehicle can be driven either manually or autonomously and embraces similar technologies to those seen in Google’s Prius. Demonstrating the concept vehicle last year, Chris Perry, vice president, global Chevrolet marketing and strategy told media, “The Chevrolet EN-V represents a possible solution for global customers living in markets where alternative transportation solutions are needed.”

GM may not have had an easy time of developing and integrating new technologies of late, and skeptics of such development are likely to highlight the bumpy path of the Chevy Volt. But as sales of the plug-in hybrid increase, Burns sees the lessons of the Volt as valuable to further groundbreaking auto-development, stating to AutoNews: “In terms of what we’ve learned as a society, this program has been enormously successful. It’s not necessarily about the numbers. We know so much more because engineers are out their pioneering this stuff.”

Via Hybrid Cars, Auto News

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