Our view: Driverless cars should take Giants Despair challenge

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This will sound over the top, literally as well as figuratively, but it’s an idea whose time may have come.

Let’s invite — indeed, let’s make a serious effort to lure — self-driving car companies to enter the annual Giants Despair Hillclimb.

Imagine a driverless car tearing around those hairpin turns and revving up that final stretch rising at a steep 22 percent grade — a punishing pitch given the anodyne moniker “the incline.”

This is not a pipe dream. In fact, it has happened across the pond, at the annual Goodwood Hillclimb in West Sussex, England. Roborace — an electric, driverless car — completed the 1.16 mile course without a hitch. You can find videos of the historic run all over the web.

The sleek, low-slung speedster made the success look effortless, if a bit unimpressive time-wise. Taking a minute and a half, it didn’t come close to the completion speeds humans attain. But it was much smoother and faster than a second automaton at the same event, a vintage Ford Mustang retrofitted by German health and tech giant Siemens.

The Mustang took over four minutes to crest the climb, and a safety driver repeatedly had to briefly grab the steering wheel as the car swerved toward the berm. In the real world, a cop would have pulled it over on suspicion of DUI.

Not to belittle the Brits, but Goodwood looks like a kiddie car course compared to Giants Despair, with gentle turns, a grade that averages under 5 percent, and a farmful of baled hay lining much of the route. If Roborace wants a real challenge, the Laurel Run road clearly, um, rises to the occasion.

It seems a safe bet a car that could maneuver Giants Despair in roughly the amount of time a human does would earn serious street cred, and if autonomous autos are ever to become the widespread reality futurists imagine, getting passenger trust is the ultimate hurdle.

And make no mistake, there’s big money being poured into the effort, by big companies, from automobile veterans such as GM and Volvo to upstarts like Tesla and Uber. Waymo, a spinoff of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., has been developing self-driving tech for nearly a decade. These vehicles are already on the road for testing in several cities. Getting one or several of them to take on the local hill climb could be good PR for them and for Luzerne County.

It would also dovetail with the effort to morph the region into a tech hub — detailed earlier this year in our InNOVAtion special sections. We have tech incubators, an enterprise center, and a sufficient number of people eager to finally put the “coal cracker” label permanently behind us and re-brand the region for what it has become: Home to hard-working people with plenty of ideas and a small but growing entrepreneurial support system.

So let’s get the word out. If you are one of the nearly two dozen companies working on autonomous cars and you want to prove you can make it happen in the next few years, take the Giants Despair challenge.

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