The road to the future, for those who would like to take a hands-off approach to driving, could have been glimpsed recently on a highway from Beijing.
What was once the realm of science fiction, passengers in driverless vehicles reading or playing video games as their vehicle hurtles down the road, is now science fact.
A black driverless sport utility vehicle completed a 114-kilometer journey last month from Beijing to Tianjin in 85 minutes.
"The average speed was 79 km per hour, but it could have been higher as traffic on the road was a little heavy," said professor Xu Youchun, who is in charge of the research program.
Junjiaomengshi 3 (Lion 3), the vehicle's nickname, completed more than 10,000 km in tests, reaching a top speed of 120 km/h, said Xu, a specialist on "intelligent vehicles" at the Military Transportation University in Tianjin.
The vehicle looks exactly the same as any SUV, except for three sensors on the front, back and top. Three other sensors inside the vehicle, three cameras, a navigational system and three computers keep the vehicle safely on the road.
During the test on Nov 24, the vehicle overtook 12 times, made 36 lane changes and applied brakes 30 times.
The only work done by the "driver" was to input the destination and press the start button, Xu said.
To ensure safety, specialists were in the vehicle and were able to take control of it at any time.
"The driving can be immediately switched to manual mode in case of emergency," Xu said. "When the car was running, it was so steady it felt as though it was driven by a skilled driver. But when it stopped, it shuddered slightly."
Xu said that initially the specialists in the vehicle were slightly nervous.
Wu Shaobin, a transport professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, monitored the entire process in a car behind. "I could see no difference between the vehicle and normal cars with drivers," he said.
Other universities and institutes, including the National University of Defense Technology, are also researching self-driving technology, Wu said.
Several states in the US have issued licenses to allow self-driving vehicles on the roads under strict conditions.
The potential is enormous, Xu said.
Meng Jun, director of the achievement division of Military Transportation University, said although self-driving vehicles can have civilian use they could also be used for the military.
"They can perform in harsh environments unsuitable for humans," he said. "Besides, it is much easier for such vehicles to work in remote areas than in an urban environment."
Although the vehicle performed well on the highway, it still has to be developed before it can work on city roads, Meng said.
"Next we will focus on research so the vehicle can identify signals and gestures by traffic police."
Legal responsibility should also be defined, Xu said. "It must be made clear who should be held accountable if a driver-free car is in an accident," he said.
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