The man beside me took his hands off of the wheel and his foot off the pedal.
The car continued to propel forward along the congested streets of downtown Atlanta.
The car, a Volvo XC90, stayed in its lane. It maintained the local speed limit. Apart from the marketing messages emblazoned on its side, it blended in perfectly with every other vehicle on the road.
That’s because the semi-autonomous vehicle is part of MyCarDoesWhat.Org – a national campaign by the National Safety Council and the University of Iowa to educate the public about what it refers to as “safety technologies.”
These technologies are the lifeblood of the autonomous car movement and include all of those seemingly high-tech features of the cars of the future. Think: adaptive cruise control, electronic braking, obstacle detection.
“Consumers think these are high-tech features but they’re here today,” said Dan McGehee, an occupational health professor at the University of Iowa and also the Volvo’s driver.
We turn down a second street, one lined with parked cars and the professor taps a button on the screen indicating he’s ready to park. As we proceed down the street, the car uses radar and cameras to search for an available space and, once it identifies one, sounds a bell alerting him to stop.
A screen instructs McGehee to look around for obstructions as the car backs into the parallel spot. The car comes to a stop and the engine turns off.
“I think there’s a really exciting future out there,” McGehee said.
While this generation of vehicles uses driver-assisted technologies, the next will be fully autonomous.
In fact, the Volvo XC90 with which we used to navigate the city was built as an autonomous vehicle and the same model will be used in 2017 in Sweden in the Drive Me project – a project in which 100 self-driving cars will take to the streets of Gothenburg, Sweden.
Autonomous cars, McGehee says, are ready for the roads today. But the public isn’t quite ready. That’s why he’s part of the MyCarDoesWhat.org program and why he’s driven 2,200 miles across the country in this semi-autonomous vehicle.
The semi-autonomous vehicles provide an introduction to the technology and the safety options available, he said.
“In the last 15 years, cars have become crash worthy. The next step is crash avoidant,” McGehee said.
That’s where features like lane assistance and forward collision warning come in.
As cars get smarter, they remove the window for human error – the leading cause of automotive accidents.
As our Volvo pulled up to our stop, I thanked McGehee and said a mental goodbye to our SUV, which felt more like an overprotective friend than an automobile.