Milestones in Driverless Vehicles: The Washington Post Takes a Semi-Autonomous Drive in D.C.

What we’re witnessing here and in other areas, such as smart home technology, is a continuum of change that can bring significant changes to insurance before the emergence of completely driverless personal transportation.


Driverless cars may be an area in which the insurance industry has a higher level of awareness than the general public, but a report in the Washington Post should be as interesting to insurance people as the average reader. The article (linked here) describes a drive through Washington D.C. in a Cadillac SRX converted to be autonomous-capable by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

The DC location was chosen because of the special challenges of driving through an urban area known for its navigational challenges. Those challenges require the CMU engineer at the while to frequently toggle between autonomous and driver-controlled as the vehicle encounters situations too subtle for the onboard computer to cope with. For example, the gesture of a traffic cop are mysterious to the car’s limited artificial intelligence, and the mixture of caution and aggression required to achieve a safe and timely merge are beyond its capabilities.

Raj Rajkumar, Director of Carnegie Mellon's Transportation Research Center.

Raj Rajkumar, Director of Carnegie Mellon’s Transportation Research Center.

The author’s emphasis on the driver’s interventions paints a picture of the limitations of autonomous vehicle technology for urban driving. But one could just as legitimately take away the message that driverless car technology is already very advanced, even if it’s not generally available. The technology demonstrated by the CMU-rigged Cadillac could handle most situations in non-city-center driving quite handily, and could easily chauffeur car owners on long highway rides, permitting them to catch up on work, text safely, watch a movie or even sleep.

Autonomous driving is progressing rapidly, according to Raj Rajkumar, director of Carnegie Mellon’s transportation research center, funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and co-director of the CMU-General Motors Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab.

“This car is the holy grail of autonomous driving because it can do it all — from changing lanes on highways, driving in congested suburban traffic and navigating traffic lights,” Rajkumar commented in Sept. 2013 announcement about the initiative. “This car and the research team behind it are proof that Carnegie Mellon continues to be a leader on this emerging frontier.”

The Cadillac SRX is an improvement on earlier autonomous vehicles developed by CMU in that it uses only automotive-grade radars and LIDARs (light detection and ranging), which CMU says are embedded unobtrusively around the car. The onboard computer is hidden under the cargo floor.

Safety and Convenience

In addition to controlling the steering, speed and braking, the SRX’s autonomous systems also detect and avoid obstacles in the road, including traffic cones and barrels, as well as pedestrians and bicyclists, pausing until they are safely out of the way. The systems provide audible warnings of obstacles and communicate vehicle status to its passengers using a human-like voice.

This Cadillac SRX also can communicate with instrumented traffic lights and other vehicles equipped with wireless communication devices to enable cooperation.

The main goal of CMU’s driverless car is to reduce accidents, thereby decreasing injuries and fatalities, according to the CMU statement, which also notes the benefit of saving time during daily commutes and long distance travels by taking over the task of driving and giving people more time to catch up on other activities.

The Carnegie Mellon car might not be ready for a commute into New York City or Boston, say, but if you have calls to make while running local errands, the technology is already there. Need to check directions safely? No problem. Worried that your second drink at the local might have put you close to the legal limit? Just turn on the robot driver.

Continuum of Technological Change

As we’ve reported at IIR, collision avoidance will impact insurance premium before totally autonomous driving will. What we’re witnessing here and in other areas, such as smart home technology, is a continuum of change that can bring significant changes to insurance before the emergence of completely driverless personal transportation. Automated driving technology is not new, CMU’s Rajkumar. The first steps, he tells the Washington Post reporter were things such as anti-lock brakes and cruise control. He describes a probable march of technology that will eventually get us to the driverless destination, and before too long:

The next one coming in assembly-line cars — within three to five years — will be a highway pilot feature, he says. Put the car in the correct lane, tell it to go to San Francisco, and it will.

A year or two later, highway “plus-plus” will arrive, allowing that San Francisco-bound car to weave around the slowpokes along the way.

In the same time frame — three to four years — look for traffic-jam assist capability. The car will take over for you while inching through bumper-to-bumper traffic and alert you to take back control once there’s clear sailing.

“The [totally] driverless version will happen in the 2020s,” Rajkumar says. “But the whole process will be incremental. More and more scenarios that we drive in will become automated, and one fine day you’ve given up complete control, but you don’t even notice.”

On Sept. 4, 2013, Bill Shuster, U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania’s 9th District and Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, took a ride in CMU’s modified Cadillac SRX. The car took Shuster and Barry Schoch, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, on a 33-mile drive from Cranberry, Pa., to Pittsburgh International Airport.

According to a CMU statement the car threaded through congested traffic, merged at highway speeds and obeyed traffic signals — all without human intervention. The University published the following video record of the event:

Anthony R. O’Donnell // Anthony O'Donnell is Executive Editor of Insurance Innovation Reporter. For nearly two decades, he has been an observer and commentator on the use of information technology in the insurance industry, following industry trends and writing about the use of IT across all sectors of the insurance industry. He can be reached at or (503) 936-2803.

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