Driveless cars are no longer science fiction

America's love affair with cars has been going on for more than a century. But if you're one of those people who really hate driving, the future could belong to you.

Thanks to advances in sensors, GPS systems, electronic steering and computerized braking, cars have been developed that drive themselves. Researchers around the world — and in Kansas City — are working to make everyday use of driverless cars a reality.

"This is not futuristic," Vijay Kumar, a professor of computer science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said in a recent interview. "We have the technology. We have the talent" to make it happen.

Automotive systems have advanced to the point that current driverless projects include an Italy-to-China trek and a high-speed run up Pikes Peak — testing in extreme conditions to root out weaknesses and improve the systems' reliability. Other research involves figuring out the best way to put the vehicles into widespread use.

For example, Kumar said his work involved "not a driverless car" but a "self-synchronizing moving objects" system. He wants to go beyond cars that simply avoid crashing, to vehicles whose computers communicate with one another. In his scenario, vehicles will be able to move in harmony, maximizing efficiency and even eliminating the need for traffic lights or other outside controls.

"Initially, a voice-activated system will give commands to the driver," he said. "Later, a fully automatic system will be developed in which the driver would not have any role to play."

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