Autonomous Autos Are Coming

by Jerry Edgerton

Do you really hate that morning commute? What if during those traffic jams you could be reading the morning news or memos from work while the car drove itself? Researchers from Detroit to Silicon Valley say it could happen by 2020.

Nissan and General Motors spokespersons say the companies could produce an “autonomous car” by the end of the decade. And Google continues its intense research on the subject, with instructions from its executives to get results within five years. Much of the technology involved—including video cameras and radar sensors—already is installed in some cars as a part of safety features like lane departure warning and collision warning.

But the technology may run ahead of laws and regulation that would allow large numbers of self-driving cars on U.S. roads. National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland, Washington, D.C., said in a statement: “The car—no matter how automated—is not yet ready to be more than a co-pilot. And every co-pilot needs a pilot. Before self-driving vehicles can roam our streets, we have to resolve some of the challenges.”

And yet, self-driving car advocates say the vehicles could reduce accidents. Despite enormous safety advances in vehicles over the past 20 years, about 35,000 people die each year from auto accidents, many involving alcohol or drowsiness or various distractions like texting while driving. “This technology will basically prevent human beings from harming themselves,” Carnegie Mellon professor Raj Rajkumar, Pittsburgh, told a congressional hearing recently.

Beyond safety concerns, consumer acceptance clearly will be an issue. Like electric-powered cars, self-driving cars likely will carry a price beyond the reach of many buyers. And even once autonomous cars fall in price, it will take years of vehicle turnover before a large number of them are in use.

Some people simply don’t like the idea of riding in a car with no human driver. A recent Kelley Blue Book poll found 53% of respondents said they would never buy a self-driving car while only 18% said they would consider one now if it were available. Twenty percent said they might consider buying if the technology improved in five to 10 years. You likely still would be able to take over a self-driving car in an emergency. “I assume there would have to be some override functionality in case the system goes haywire or gets hacked,” says Michael Omotoso, chief power train analyst for LMC Automotive in Troy, Mich. He says he would expect it would be 10 years or so before significant numbers of self-driving cars were on the road.

Omotoso points out that the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S class can brake and steer itself for a few seconds under certain conditions. Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, and some other brands have models with automated cruise control that keeps your car a safe distance behind the one ahead. If the radar system senses an imminent crash, it puts on the brakes.

Another feature that approximates self-driving cars is an automatic parking feature. On the Ford Escape and Fusion and the Nissan Pathfinder, the car will maneuver itself into a parallel parking spot. Chances are, it can fit into a tighter spot and avoid dents better than if you did it yourself. Here is the current situation and probable future pace of the driverless car:


Google has 10 test cars and has logged some 300,000 miles on public roads without an accident. Its cars have been able to maneuver through the hilly streets of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley suburbs. Analysts believe Google, if successful, would try to sell the system to the auto industry rather than build cars itself.

Nissan is continuing its research in collaboration with top universities including MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Oxford, and the University of Tokyo. The company is building a proving ground in Japan for its driverless cars that approximates city streets and structures to allow additional testing that might not be feasible on public roads. Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn says the company is dedicated to developing an autonomous car with affordable pricing within the next two generations of vehicles.

Changing laws

Nevada, Florida, and California have passed laws allowing self-driving cars on their roads for testing—with certain safeguards. For instance Nevada’s laws were changed to allow the experimental cars on its roads but requiring that a human driver be behind the wheel with someone else in the passenger seat. Nevada’s legal changes also allow the person in the driver’s seat to send texts as part of the research.

Acceptance of technology

Starting with antilock brakes, Americans have steadily gotten used to features in their cars that do some of the work for them. Traction control, which helps prevent slides and rollover accidents, now is required on all cars. One of the major results of all this technology has been steadily rising prices for new cars. But auto sales that are back to near record levels this year show that buyers have not been deterred.

Overall trends

While car buffs still welcome the introduction of a new Corvette or other sports car, not as many people still think driving is fun. Crowded streets, traffic jams, and difficult parking can quickly take the fun out of driving. Many urban residents, instead of owning their own cars, sign up with companies like Zip Cars, which let you just take a car for a short time when you need it. With this shift in attitude, a driverless car may seem more like subways or buses—a useful convenience.

If you’re a driver who now spends lost commuting hours stuck in traffic, a car that safely navigates itself while you read or text might seem pretty attractive.