The Driverless City

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, the roulette wheel of innovation landed on something rather old-fashioned and unexpected: the automobile. Self-driving vehicles promise to have a dramatic impact on urban life, because they will blur the distinction between private and public modes of transportation.

CAMBRIDGE – At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week, the roulette wheel of innovation landed on something rather old-fashioned and unexpected: the automobile. In recent decades, cars have been undergoing a gradual transformation from the kinds of mechanical systems Henry Ford might have imagined into computers on wheels. And that transformation is bringing with it a new wave of digital advances – above all, autonomous driving.

The first autonomous (or self-driving) cars date back to the late twentieth century. But recent increases in sophistication and reductions in cost – reflected, for example, in cheap LIDAR systems, which can “see” a street in 3D in a way similar to that of the human eye – are now bringing driverless cars closer to the market.

As we saw last week, several manufacturers are working toward integrating such systems into their fleets, and expect to start selling premium cars with different degrees of autonomy as early as 2016. According to a just-released IHS report, “sometime after 2050” virtually all vehicles on the road might be self-driving.

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