The concept seems ridiculously far-fetched: cars that control themselves and leave “drivers” to ride comfortably in the privacy of their own vehicles. But thanks to interest from decidedly non-motorhead companies like Google, self-driving cars are already hitting the streets for test drives.
Does that mean that the spontaneous joyride will soon come to an end, or that you’ll be able to spend your next commute tweeting about Game of Thrones or catching some extra shuteye? Not necessarily. But that’s not stopping the search giant from putting its autonomous vehicle research at the heart of its PR efforts. Indeed, in 2012 the company even formed a partnership with NASCAR to create a racing division for its vehicle research. Now the company claims its self-driving cars have logged more than 500,000 miles on the road without, as Google puts it, a “machine-caused” accident.
According to Richard Read of The Car Connection, the technology for autonomous vehicles exists today, but getting the public to trust them keeps these cars off the streets. Read reports that a Society of Environmental Engineers panel predicted in April that autonomous vehicles may be commonplace by 2025. That would allow plenty of time for the public to get comfortable that self-driving cars will be safe. Many questions still exist about the legal and regulatory framework surrounding self-driving cars, but they do seem inevitable.
But did you know Google’s autonomous vehicles have been licensed to travel Nevada streets for more than a year? The permit lets the company test its self-driving cars on public roads (the cars have special license plates that identify them as autonomous). In 2011, the state issued broader rules regulating self-driving cars, so expect to see other companies seek licenses of their own.
Nissan’s CEO predicts that autonomous vehicles will be in the wild by 2020, Forbes reports. And Google’s not the only one in the self-driving car game. Daimler, GM, Audi, Nissan and BMW all believe they’ll sell autonomous vehicles by 2020, while Google expects to sell its technology by 2020. Legislation will play a key role in making this happen. Aside from Nevada, California and Florida have also passed regulations governing self-driving cars.
Unfortunately, plans for autonomous cars may have hit a setback this weekend when Stanford Professor Clifford Nass died of a heart attack. Nass was one of the pioneers of autonomous vehicle research at Stanford. The Silicon Valley university is undertaking many of the crucial studies that will make self-driving cars possible. Nass focused his investigations on how easily humans would be able to take over driving a self-driving automobile if necessary.
Of course, many modern cars have features that bring them closer to autonomous vehicles. So while you may not own a self-driving car, you might own a very helpful automobile. Features such as collision detection, lane departure warnings, and adaptive cruise control are all hallmarks of semi-autonomous features available in luxury cars. Now the ability to install inexpensive sensor systems are bringing down costs for these “driver assistance” programs. By the time autonomous vehicles are on the road you may not even notice them.
Alex Gabriel is a writer at Reply! with several years of digital marketing and copywriting experience. A native of Portland and graduate of the University of Oregon, Alex has a passion for writing about new cars. To learn more about the best hybrid and electric cars on the road, see his price guide on the latest and greatest models.