Self-driving cars have been the talk of the automotive industry in recent times, with some major car-makers now setting dates for the debut of these vehicles in the marketplace. The latest glimpse into this autonomous future comes from Carnegie Mellon University, where researchers have loaded a Cadillac SRX with an array of sensors that allow it to manage highway traffic, congested roadways, and even merging on and off ramps.

The Carnegie Mellon team, led by Raj Rajkumar, outfitted an average-looking 2011 Cadillac SRX with an array of radars, which are subtly hidden within the car. The SRX was chosen because "GM has been a long-term partner and sponsor," Rajkumar tells Gizmag.

Utilizing automotive-grade sensors and radars, rather that more exotic and expensive devices, helps make the vehicle more manufacturer friendly, as well as cost effective. Though not all of the radars are certified as automotive-grade yet just yet, "they will be soon, and are known to be very reliable," Rajkumar says. "They are placed all around the vehicle for 360 coverage."

Like other autonomous cars, the modded SRX's system controls general driving functions like steering, acceleration, and braking. Using the radar system, this vehicle also senses and avoids roadway hindrances, like pedestrians and cyclists. "Our Cadillac also supports V2V and V2I communications," Rajkumar explains. This communication allows the SRX to connect with designed traffic lights and other vehicles that are equipped with the technology, making driving adjustments that much less strenuous on the radar system.

The main goal of the CMU research team is to reduce accidents, but catching up on reading during commutes has its perks as well. "The car's electronics are simply more reliable than people and will protect drivers from their own bad behavior as well as those of others," says Rajkumar.

Similar to Nissan's prediction, Rajkumar foresees autonomous vehicles hitting the road by 2020. "There are technical issues, but also issues of social acceptance, a regulatory regime being in place, and insurance matters to be resolved," Rajkumar tells Gizmag. "All must progress for this technology to be deployed in practice."

With this in mind, the team recently took US Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Barry Schoch, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, for a 33-mile ride from Cranberry, PA to the Pittsburgh International Airport – a ride which is full of heavy traffic, road obstacles, and challenges for even the best commuters.

During the trip, a researcher stayed in the driver's seat, as a precaution, but the vehicle managed to flawlessly navigate itself on the journey.

As the world progresses toward fully-autonomous, road-safe vehicles, there are plenty of challenges, but the CMU researchers are prepared to take the reigns – or the wheel. "The world is very unpredictable, so the intelligence in the car must be able to deal with any and all conditions that arise," says Rajkumar. "Federal R&D investments in technology will transform transportation (in terms of safety and efficiency) and technical leadership."

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