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Good Question: How Do Driverless Cars Work?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- On Tuesday afternoon, WCCO's Heather Brown drove on I-394 in a 2017 Volvo XC90 with no hands on the steering wheel and no feet on the brake or gas.

Heather Brown in a self-driving car 2
(credit: CBS)

"As you can see the first generation allows you to literally play with the future of what automobiles are going to be," says Borton Volvo's Gene Kaganovsky.

The Volvo accelerates and decelerates on the highway once the driver assistance features are engaged.  The car also lets drivers take their hands off the wheel for fifteen seconds at a time so the car can steer itself.  According to Kaganovsky, a series of sensors, radar and cameras allow the car to follow the lanes on the roads.

Several car companies, including Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, Nissan and General Motors deploy this type of semiautonomous car technology on the roads.

This is the beginning of autonomous – or driverless – cars. Many of those cars are now being tested on closed courses and open roads by companies like Google, Uber and Tesla.

Frank Douma, Director of the State and Local Policy Program at the University of Minnesota, says driverless cars are expected to be common by 2030. Many car manufacturers have promised them by 2021.

Right now, about 35,000 people die in car accidents in the U.S. each year. Douma says 90 to 95 percent of them are caused by human error.

"If we can bring the technology in to correct for a lot of those human mistakes, we can a very significant improvement in the safety of our system," Douma says.

He says the many of the fully autonomous cars operate with LIDAR, which operates like radar by using light. Using LIDAR and a combination of conventional radar, cameras, sensors and high-quality maps, the car can then determine its surroundings.

"Our grandkids will likely not need drivers' licenses at least as we know them to operate a vehicle," Douma says.

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