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Apr 25, 2013 9:56 AM by Samantha Ptashkin

Crazy idea or car of the future? UA professor works on robotic car

TUCSON- It's not quite as futuristic as the flying car used by TV family "The Jetsons", but one car at The University of Arizona is creating quite the buzz.

It's a Ford Escape with all the normal fixings, like keys, gears and mirrors.

But this car can drive all by itself.

"I always watch Star Trek, so I think anything like that is pretty cool," says Tucson Driver Krisjana Dunn.

UA Engineering Professor Jonathan Sprinkle is the brains behind it. "Everyone wants to drive it," Sprinkle says.

The steering wheel requires no hands, in fact, you don't even have to sit in the driver's seat to make it ride. Sprinkle and his team of grad students use a laptop computer to control the car. "So we can tell it to turn its tires and we can tell it to speed up and slow down," Sprinkle says.

It's a far cry from Sprinkle's days in school. "Some of the most exciting things you could do would be to hook up a circuit, turn on the switch and see the light come on," Sprinkle says.

But he says autonomous cars are the way of the future. "Where we'll see autonomy is people using it for trips where they really don't want to pay attention, or when there's stop and go traffic on the interstate," Sprinkle says.

Of course, researchers need to work out the kinks first.

Sprinkle says one problem is that when you ride in the car it can make you nauseous. "For the same reason it might make you car sick to drive with someone who's about 16-years-old and just learning to drive for the first time."

There is also the issue of safety. On the inside of the car there is a red emergency button Sprinkle can press if he wants the car to suddenly brake. The goal is to eventually make sure the car would be safe to ride on the road with other vehicles.

Then there is the whole idea of "Big Brother" behind the wheel. "I like the freedom of mobility to turn where I want to turn in a split second," says Tucson Driver Gary Kuehn.

For now Sprinkle and his team contain their test drives to a parking lot. But he hopes his research will one day be the key car manufacturers need to make autonomous cars mainstream.

AZ State Rep. Jeff Dial, who lives in Chandler, introduced a bill to bring autonomous cars on the road. He tells News 4 Tucson he plans to work on it next session.

So far California, Nevada and Florida are the only states which have passed a law approving autonomous cars.

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