2015 Autos: Steering Toward Driverless Future

Completely autonomous driving is still years away, but early versions are coming soon.

November 26, 2014

It’s the stuff of science fiction, but autonomous driving is on the road to reality. These days, virtually every major automaker is working on self-driving technology, Nissan promising to put a fully autonomous vehicle on the road by 2020. But it may be tech giant Google that takes the lead in this emerging field.

The Silicon Valley search engine monolith is in the midst of rolling out 100 self-driving prototypes — quirky little electric vehicles looking like a cross between a Volkswagen Beetle and a Smart Fortwo microcar. Inside, a passenger will notice the lack of a steering wheel and pedals: The prototypes are equipped only with an on-off button and controls allowing the riders to enter a destination — by voice, of course.

“Our vision is to bring this technology to the world, and we’ll find a way to do it,” explains Chris Umson, the head of Google’s autonomous vehicle program. But Google’s not the only one shooting at this target. Cadillac, for example, is planning to launch a system called SuperDrive in 2016 on a new flagship sedan. It will allow motorists to take their hands off the wheel on a limited-access highway, though it would still be operated like a normal vehicle on local roads.

Nissan plans to introduce a string of more advanced features between now and 2020, when it hopes to launch its first fully autonomous vehicle — though even that model will retain its steering wheel and pedals. Few expect to see something like the Google car take over for at least another decade or more.

Whichever form autonomous driving takes, proponents envision a number of advantages. The technology should help reduce the risk of distracted driving, which is blamed for around 10 percent of U.S. highway deaths. By giving vehicles the ability to “talk” to one another, they could skirt traffic jams and other problems while also “platooning,” or traveling in tight convoys that would make much better use of existing roads. That would allow more cars to travel smoothly without adding extra lanes.

“Seniors could keep their freedom even if they can’t keep their car keys,” adds Google’s Umson. “And drunk and distracted driving could become a thing of the past.”

Bernd Pischetsrieder, former CEO of BMW and now a Volkswagen AG board member, says that as much fun as driving can be, the reality is that it’s tedious when you’re stuck in traffic or cruising along the freeway on a lengthy trip. That’s when an autonomous vehicle can be both safer and less stressful.

While true self-driving vehicles won’t roll into your nearest showroom anytime soon, you can get a sense of what’s to come on a number of vehicles already on the road. A version of the Infiniti Q50 sedan, for example, offers so-called steer-by-wire, with no direct mechanical link between the steering wheel and the front wheels. Paired with a smart vision system, it will hold its position on a highway lane for a few seconds while you reach for the radio.

The new Mercedes-Benz S-Class is a near-autonomous technical showcase. It features infrared night vision that will spot animals and pedestrians and flag the driver’s attention. On city streets, it can spot a bicyclist who might cut in front of you, bringing the sedan to a quick stop without a driver’s intervention. Dozens of vehicles now offer collision avoidance systems that will sound a warning and, in some cases, stop the car to avoid a crash.

Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of The Detroit Bureau. He has more than 30 years of experience covering the auto industry for a broad range of print, broadcast, and electronic media.