Automobile engineers are closing in on developing a fully driverless vehicle that will slow down, speed up, change lanes and take you where you want to go without touching either the brake or steering wheel.
Carmakers say these cars will cut the number of accidents down to near zero, taking human error out of the equation, as well as saving energy by allowing you to get from point A to point B without wasting gas at traffic lights or endlessly circling for a parking space.
Despite these technological advances, some experts say the real obstacles to this driverless future are legal ones. Who will pay if an autonomous vehicle causes a wreck -- the human occupant or the company that built the software? And what about a future of driverless coupled with "drivered" cars?
"It's going to be an interesting transition," said Gary Marchant, professor of emerging technologies at the Arizona State University College of Law. "Autonomous cars will reduce the number of accidents and safety will be a huge driver, but the liability will shift to the manufacturer. They will be the one on the hook."
Luxury carmakers like Cadillac and Mercedes have already started integrating new autonomous sensing technologies into new high-end models. They offer "adaptive cruise control" which allows drivers to set the distance between cars on the freeway and then slow down automatically if another car gets too close. If another driver cuts you off, for example, sensors slow your car. GM has also built in special ultrasonic radar to check for blind spots while backing up or changing lanes.
"We are on a path to develop a fully autonomous vehicle," said Nady Boules, director of electronics and controls at GM's research and development lab. "We are marching toward that goal steadily."
This summer, nearly 3,000 Michiganders will get first crack at a new "vehicle to vehicle" or V2V system that will allow cars and trucks to talk to each other electronically to avoid accidents, according to the Associated Press. The vehicles will share data about their location, direction and speed with other cars within 1,000 feet, while a computer analyzes the information and issues danger warnings.The program is being run by a consortium of eight domestic and foreign automakers. In addition to V2V, a so-called vehicle-to-infrastructure system (V2I) will allow cars to find out about traffic congestion ahead, or the location of open parking spaces in a sprawling lot.
The Federal Highway Transit Association's connected vehicle system will communicate using short-range wireless technology. It's a test run of sorts for a nationwide system of driverless vehicles that is slowly coming online. Last month, Nevada issued the world's first license for a self-driving vehicle to Google. The Internet giant has been testing a fleet of autonomous vehicles, modified Toyota Priuses, for the past two years, and said it wants to find an automotive partner to commercialize the results.
Nissan's Infiniti has several models that have sensors that tell the driver if they're drifting out of their traveling lane, while Volvo's XC60 warns drivers of impending crashes and hits the brakes if driver's don't react. Bad weather and faded paint on lane strips, however, can cause problems for these systems.
Boules says GM is road-testing its semi-autonomous "Super Cruise" that combines many of these advanced features with GPS mapping technology, and will have it ready by 2015. A fully-autonomous vehicle that can take you from Detroit to Florida hands-free, for example, could be ready for the public by the end of the decade, although legal barriers still remain, according to GM spokesman Dan Flores.
"Social and legislative factors will influence the timing of a vehicle that can drive itself," he said. "What about insurance companies? What is there position on insuring vehicles that drive themselves? What are the rules?"
ASU's Marchant expects drivers in nations with simpler legal and liability systems may see autonomous vehicles before we do."Unfortunately we are developing this technology," Marchant said, "but we may not be the first to deploy it."