The Opel Vectra: An Automotive Automaton

The modern plague of laziness has really gotten out of control. Get this: General Motors is getting set to release a car that drives itself.

The system, currently in development in Russelsheim, Germany, is called Traffic Assist, and its first intended target is the 2008 Opel Vectra, a new family sedan based on the Epsilon 2 (Opel is GM’s largest European subsidiary). The word is that more models on the Epsilon platform, including the Saturn Aura and the Saab 9-3, will be equipped with Traffic Assist within a year or two of the Opel’s release.

The name implies that the system is helping the driver and not doing all of his work, and that’s more or less accurate. It doesn’t literally drive itself, as in without a fanny in the driver’s seat, but it becomes a source of safety by translating what it “sees” through its video processors and an army of computers. And the really fun Autobahn-like stuff will require an attentive pilot, as the system works only below 60 mph.

Lasers, cameras, and of course computers work together to become the driver’s eyes, hands, and feet. It can even “read” road signs and assess painted lane markings on the road and other necessary indicators. The computers work together to signal controls on the throttle, brakes, and steering.

Some cars – newer Volvos, for example – use blind-spot-monitoring camera systems to alert the driver when a vehicle enters the unseen zone. And active cruise control technology is already in use in other cars, such as BMWs, but that system only controls the speed to maintain a safe distance from other cars – it cannot steer the car, as Traffic Assist can. Honda is another carmaker that is developing self-driving technology, although it’s thought not to be as involved as Traffic Assist.

But perhaps it’s not the lazy who will go for this car. Maybe it’s just the typical, harried multitasker we all know well (and probably are ourselves). Imagine being able read the paper in a traffic jam, or apply mascara, or shave, whichever your pre-work routine calls for, in the midst of your highway commute. Too many people do that now in their old-fashioned, human-piloted cars these days anyhow.

The question is begged, though: Will the litigation-laden United States ever approve such technology? I mean, aren’t computers machines, and don’t machines break down? What will make Traffic Assist so trustworthy in this regard? And one more question: If a driverless car is caught speeding, who pays the ticket? Or can the system read speed-limit signs?

Besides, I know that Americans really love their cars, and my thought is that actually driving them is part of the equation. But maybe not. We’ll see if and when Traffic Assist ever makes it to this side of the Atlantic.

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