It's been more than half a century since some of the first concept cars boasting
self-driving features were presented to the world and they're still not on the
roads. But many auto executives say the industry is on the cusp of welcoming
vehicles that make the idea of keeping both hands on the wheel an
General Motors showed off "dream cars" in the late 1950s
like the Firebird II and Cadillac Cyclone with features automakers are now
starting to roll out in new models as the technology, based on sensors, lasers,
radar systems, GPS, cameras and microchips -- improves and becomes less
While most industry officials don't envision a fully
self-driving, or autonomous, vehicle before 2025, features such as adaptive
cruise control or traffic jam assist that automatically slow or apply the brakes
for a car in certain situations are already being introduced. And much like
anti-lock brakes became the norm after initial resistance, these new
technologies will prepare drivers for a future where they are needed
"The whole concept of a car being able to drive itself is pretty
profound," said Larry Burns, GM's former research and development chief and an
adviser for Google's self-driving car project. "This is the most
transformational play to hit the auto industry in 125 years." The progress has
been in the making for decades as GM's Firebird II, introduced in 1956, included
a system to work with an electrical wire embedded in the highway to guide the
car. Three years later, the rocket-like Cyclone boasted an autopilot system that
steered the car and radar in front nose cones that warned of a collision and
automatically applied the brakes.
However, the pace of invention has
quickened, with such automakers as GM, Ford Motor Co, Toyota Motor Corp and
Volkswagen AG developing technologies to help drivers avoid accidents. Some even
envision a future where today's cars are more amusement.
"In the same way
we all used to travel on horses and now horses are entertainment, you could
imagine automobiles driven by people becoming more entertainment," said Chris
Urmson, the Google program's technical head.
In a world where Nevada and
Florida have already passed laws allowing the licensing of self-driving cars,
the rush is on to make the job easier for drivers. For many, the ultimate goal
is to take the steering wheel totally out of consumers' hands and eliminate
"Once we have a car that will never crash, why
don't we let it drive?" said Nady Boules, GM's director of autonomous technology
However, Boules and executives like him will have to win
over a public that includes those who love to drive or simply wouldn't trust
their lives to a robot. Others, like long-haul truckers, could resist the
technology for fear of job losses.
Blue screen of hell
model of trust in technology is a Windows blue screen of death. That's how much
faith I have in PCs and computer systems," said Bryan Reimer, a research
scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab.
whose group studies human behavior in relation to transportation safety and has
worked with BMW, Ford and Toyota, said people are terrible overseers of highly
autonomous systems and a car that helps drivers rather than replaces them would
be a better model.
J.D. Power and Associates found 37 percent of U.S.
consumers it surveyed in March were interested in autonomous driving technology,
but only 20 percent definitely or probably would buy it at an estimated price of
$3,000. Consulting firm Accenture said last year that almost half of U.S. and
British consumers it polled would be comfortable in a self-driving
Even if the industry eventually wins the hearts and minds of most
consumers, it also must establish the infrastructure that supports self-driving
cars, including not only the technology but the necessary legal and liability
frameworks -- things that may takes years to put in place.
associate vice president of consumer safety at insurer Nationwide Mutual,
pointed out the airline industry has had an autopilot feature for years, but
people still man the cockpit. The same will be true for cars.
to be a long time before we're going to feel comfortable turning over all the
day-to-day decisions in driving to a computer," he said.
Costs must come
down as well. For instance, the laser-based Light Detection and Ranging system
used by Google costs $70,000 according to a study released this month by
consulting firm KPMG and the Center for Automotive Research (CAR).
that reason, the rollout over the next decade of more semi-autonomous features
that assist drivers or take control of cars in only some cases is the path the
industry is taking with the idea of preparing consumers for a future with fully
"The socialization of autonomous driving is actually the
difficult part. The invention of the vehicle is the easy part," said John
Hanson, Toyota's national manager for environmental, safety and quality issues.
The Japanese automaker has two autonomous car programs, one in Japan and the
other in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
"George Jetson" days not close
automakers developing semi-autonomous features for their cars don't believe
consumers will accept a future without human drivers.
"The days of George
Jetson getting in the vehicle, saying 'to the office' and then reading a
newspaper, we don't envision for an awful long time," said Tom Baloga, BMW's
US vice president of engineering.
"We will always be the ultimate
driving machine," he said, adding that there will be times when bored drivers
stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic will turn over control of their cars. BMW has
worked on autonomous technology for more than a decade.
autonomous technologies include: Honda , Hyundai, Mercedes, Nissan and Volvo, as
well as suppliers, technology firms and universities. Chip giant Intel Corp
created a $100 million fund in February to invest in future auto
"The industry appears to be on the cusp of revolutionary
change ... engendered by the advent of autonomous or 'self-driving' vehicles.
And the timing may be sooner than you think," KPMG and CAR said in their
GM, for instance, believes semi-autonomous cars will be available
by mid-decade with more sophisticated self-driving systems by the end of the
decade. Cadillac is testing a feature dubbed "Super Cruise" that is capable of
fully automatic steering, braking and lane centering in certain highway driving
that could be ready for production by mid-decade.
Meanwhile Bill Ford,
the chairman of rival Ford Motor, sees semi-autonomous driving technology by
2025 like driver-initiated autopilot systems, as well as, the ability to reserve
parking spots ahead of your destination in a linked network, with fully
autonomous cars following after that.
"There's a lot of moving parts to
all of this, but it's almost limitless in terms of what we can do," he said in
June at an event in California's Silicon Valley. Ford's 2013 Fusion mid-sized
car includes a lane-keeping aid system, an active park assist function, adaptive
cruise control and collision warning.
Self-driving cars: "Not in our lifetime"
Google launched its autonomous car program in 2010, viewing the problem as one
of computer science. It has tested its modified Toyota Prius and Lexus RX 450h
cars over more than 300,000 miles and is talking with almost every automaker
about its technology.
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said the
company has not figured out how it would bring its technology to market, but
licensing it is an option. "Self-driving cars should in our lifetime become the
predominant way," he told Reuters in July.
Last year, one of Google's
self-driving cars was involved in a minor accident, but supporting the idea that
robots would be better drivers it occurred when the car was under human control.
The self-driving mode has yet to be in a fender bender.
Bob Casey, the
curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan,
regarded the self-guiding driving system of GM's Firebird II concept car of more
than 50 years ago "almost as a parlor trick," but he said the technology now
brings such cars closer to reality. The question is whether the auto industry is
ready for that.
"Part of the fundamental attraction of automobiles has
been the actual driving of them," he said. "If you do away with that, then it
really becomes an appliance ... a toaster, a washing machine."