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Auto companies race to get drivers out of self-driving cars

JC Reindl, Detroit Free Press on

Published in Science & Technology News

LAS VEGAS -- Auto and tech companies are racing to get human drivers completely out of their autonomous cars, perhaps as soon as this year.

Numerous companies have been testing small fleets of autonomous vehicles on highways and city streets, yet, to date, nearly all of these vehicles have had test drivers or engineers inside, ready to take over should the unexpected happen.

One of the hottest discussion topics at this week's CES conference -- formerly the Consumer Electronics Show -- is when companies expect to boot their so-called safety drivers out of their autonomous vehicles.

On Monday, a Toyota executive explained how the Japanese automaker is aiming to demonstrate a true self-driving vehicle -- one without a human babysitter -- in time for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Well before the summer games, General Motors has said it plans to have a fleet of driverless electric Chevy Bolts in certain urban areas as part of a ride-hailing service.

Mike Ableson, GM's vice president of global strategy, said Monday during a CES panel on autonomous driving that the company still aims to have these heavily modified Bolts up and running for commercial service sometime in 2019.

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Gill Pratt, head of the Toyota Research Institute, told reporters that his company's future vehicle -- a true self-driving car -- would be considered "Level 4" autonomous.

Under a widely followed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration classification system, a Level 4 autonomous car has the ability to drive itself most of the time, but still has a steering wheel and pedals for manual driving in bad conditions or for tricky maneuvers.

By comparison, Cadillac's new Super Cruise function and Tesla's "autopilot" mode are considered Level 2 autonomy and allow for hands-free driving in many settings, such as freeways in good weather.

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