The Car That (Almost) Drives Itself

When parents have to nag their kids to do their chores, some of them use phrases like, “Your room isn’t going to clean itself” or “Those leaves aren’t going to rake themselves.” But one day sooner than you think, there may be a car that drives itself. Sort of.

Earlier this month, Volkswagen unveiled a technology that is it calling Temporary Auto Pilot. TAP is actually a complex system – made up of laser scanners, video cameras, an electronic horizon, and radar and ultrasonic sensors — that is integrated into a standard passenger vehicle. These tools work together to identify the road conditions and automatically respond to them, like keeping the car in the center of a lane, driving at a steady and appropriate speed, and maintaining a safe distance from other vehicles. Cars piloted by TAP can even pass slower vehicles, stop at traffic lights, and adjust speeds as speed limits change.

Volkswagen is quick to note that the driver of a TAP-equipped vehicle is ultimately in control at all times and can override the system easily when necessary. Nevertheless, the German automaker is touting TAP as an ideal solution for driving in stop-and-go rush hour traffic in an urban environment or on long-distance road trips on highways and interstates. There is no timetable or consumer release date for TAP, but Volkswagen has indicated that the system is nearly ready for mass production.

Which leaves us to wonder: assuming that the technology works as well as advertised, how will Temporary Auto Pilot change the American driving experience?

One potential quandary for state governments is whether to relax or eliminate many of the newly-passed bans on cell phone usage or texting while driving. In a TAP-powered vehicle, those tasks could conceivably be performed without endangering the driver or other motorists. Would states include exemptions to these bans for vehicles which are outfitted with TAP systems?

If drivers are legally permitted to fully use electronic devices when TAP is engaged, there may be an explosion of productivity for workers. Imagine being able to return phone calls, check e-mails, and respond to text messages during your hour-long commute to and from the office. On the other hand, electronics companies may also tweak many of their current entertainment products so that they can be used by drivers of TAP vehicles. This means the possible emergence of new automotive features like video chat, wireless Internet, or video game systems in vehicles.

Hopefully, the implementation of Temporary Auto Pilot will lead to a decrease in motor vehicle collisions (and, by extension, auto insurance rates). If so, America might be smart to embrace the new technology on a broad scale — even if it means giving up a little “control” behind the wheel.

If you need car insurance, check out SafeAuto.com.

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