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Utah on the road toward self-driving cars, officials say

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Posted at 10:11 PM, Feb 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-24 00:11:05-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- Automakers are speeding towards a future of self-driving cars.

On Tuesday, Ford officials announced the company is four years away from this technology being the norm in their luxury cars.

Many companies are already on that road, but the question remains whether or not roadways will be ready for this technology.

Self-driving cars won't get distracted, drink and drive or get road rage.

While some believe this technology will make for an easier commute and save lives, others say it should be approach with caution.

Movies and advertisements dating back to the 50s show self-driving cars, which at the time seemed like a space-age idea.

“It was kinda a dream. It was science fiction if you will,” said Blaine Leonard, ITS Program Manager for Utah Department of Transportation.

But not anymore.

“The thing that's changing now is these technologies are actually happening,” Leonard said.

Google and Tesla are leading the pack with prototypes.

Just about every automotive company is on their tail. The cars steer and brake on their own, sense roadblocks, even parking themselves. It could forever change the daily commute.

“In the last year or so we're starting to see those technologies show up in vehicles, so we're starting to work on actually deploying those technologies here,” Leonard said.

That's right Utah is on the road to a driverless future.

“I think what's really happening here is a total transformation in the way we move,” Leonard said.

This month, lawmakers gave UDOT the green light to explore self-driving cars.

“What we're starting to look at is how we can deploy infrastructure alongside of the road that can talk with the cars and share information with them,” Leonard said.

This device will test short-range communication from the road to a vehicle.

For example, you’re in a car you can see the light is green, the self-driving car with its sensors knows the light is green. But what you don't know is a car coming at another direction is moving too fast and won't stop in time. This technology has the potential to either warn you or change the light to stop traffic and prevent a collision.

“This is really just a duo it's communicating at a certain range and sending a message to the vehicle,” Leonard said.

The first stop for testing this technology is with UTA buses. These communication devices can be seen on Redwood Road. Changing traffic lights to help the bus.

“This would sense where the bus is whether it's ahead of schedule or behind schedule and if it's behind say, ‘hey I could use a little help,’” Leonard said.

But experts warn if the state isn't careful there will be big bumps in the road to our driverless future.

“I hope anyone developing a system like this realizes there are real security challenges,” said Matthew Might, Associate Professor, School of Computing at the University of Utah.

Might works for the U.S. Military in cyber-security. He says when there's a computer connection there's a back door with potential for disaster.

“It's very likely we could end up with a scenario where people are turning all the traffic lights red or all the traffic lights green - these kind of things can happen if we're not prepared,” Might said.

It's a risk UDOT says they're well aware of. As they cautiously continue moving forward.

Getting ready for the day when your car will no longer need you behind the wheel.

“Those technologies are fascinating and they're realistic and they're moving towards us and we're trying to keep an eye on them,” Leonard said.

All of this testing is done with tax payer dollars. But UDOT officials say as the state slowly invests in this technology it will improve the state's quality of life and save lives.