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The Latest Self Driving Car Unveiled In Las Vegas
fasterthanlight
Its conventional wisdom in the auto industry, but the rest of us may be a bit shocked to find out that cars of the future probable will drive themselves.

The latest edition in this fashion comes from General Motors, which showed off a self-driving car last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.


The EN-V (pronounced "envy" and short for "Electric Networked Vehicle") combines two ideas about how to teach cars to drive -- using sensors like cameras and sonar to keep the car from hitting pedestrians; and network skill that lets cars talk to each other.

This "car internet" lets the cars connect up wirelessly and follow one another in a sort of wirelessly linked train. If one EN-V needed to pull out of the line, it could.

The pod-like cars, which are just prototypes for now, look a bit like large scuba-diver helmets, or smushed dust busters. They roll on two wheels, which are associated like the front two wheels of a car, not like a bicycle. GM partnered with Segway, maker of those futuristic-looking transporters, to make technology that allows the car to balance.

"It's essentially a dynamically balanced skateboard," said Chris Borroni-Bird, GM's director of advanced technology vehicle concepts.

The EN-V runs on battery power and plugs into a wall -- giving it a max speed of about 30 miles per hour and a range of about 30 miles. That's not far or fast, but it's sufficient to make the EN-V useful for cutting down congestion in urban settings, particularly high-density cities in China and India, Borroni-Bird said.

The car also aims to advance safety, since human drivers don't have a sterling record on that front. An estimated 1.3 million people die in traffic-related accidents each year, according to the World Health Organization.

The EN-Vs are just as spacious as they are tall, measuring 5 feet cubed. Two people fit inside comfortably, but there's not much room for anything else. A bubble of glass sits close in front of the driver's face. "You can possibly pack 5 or 6 times as many of these EN-Vs in a parking lot as you could conventional cars," Borroni-Bird said.

Drivers use a joystick of sorts to steer and strangle the vehicle, which can spin in place and accelerates rather quickly.

Still, Borroni-Bird says, there are a number of obstacles that need to be hurdled before amazing like the EN-V hits the market.

The wireless signals that let the vehicles converse are problematic because hackers, in theory, could access them and send cars off track; and because a lost wireless connection could cause the mechanized system to lose control of the car.