Auto experts don't know when cars will be truly human-proof—but they promise that day is coming.
"[We could have] fully autonomous vehicles by 2018, 2020," said Catherine McCullough, who heads the Intelligent Car Coalition. But Audi's Brad Stertz says cars that can travel start-to-finish without a human hand touching the wheel are "a generation away at the earliest."
Whenever they do arrive, the people designing tomorrow's cars promise they'll be safer, cheaper, and more efficient once they no longer need someone at the helm.
The first thing every driverless-car advocate brings up is the technology's safety benefits. A full 90 percent of accidents, they love to say, are a result of human error. Robot cars don't lose focus or get sleepy, they react in milliseconds, and they have eyes in the back of their head. "One of the things computers are really good at is doing stuff repetitively, constantly repeating these scenarios," Ford's Greg Stevens said.
And while robot cars today can monitor their surroundings millions of times per second, they'll become even more safe once the technology becomes more widespread. Today's driverless cars operate on reaction and prediction. Ford is working with MIT, Stevens said, to "build models for those vehicles around us and those people around us. About where they might move so that we have probabilities for where they end up." The technology will learn the capabilities of the cars around it, detect clues from the way they're driving, and factor in environmental factors like upcoming exits.
As more autonomous cars hit the road, they will begin to communicate and tell each other where they're going. Rather than seeing and predicting, cars will be getting constant updates on where surrounding traffic is planning to move. "There will be more of a role in the future for anonymized, aggregated data," McCullough said. "This data will help get everybody a picture of what's going on."
Cars will also begin sharing information about their surroundings. If, for instance, a sinkhole opened up a mile down the road, your car would know that almost instantly, reroute, and hop off the next exit in seconds. "You would have a huge number of cars that could give real-time information," Stertz said. "Right now we use primitive tools for that. You're getting old information."
As the cars monitor the road, they'll also be keeping an eye on their occupants. If a driver has a heart attack or passes out, the car can safely pull to the side and call for help. And if a crash does occur, the car can immediately notify emergency personnel, telling them impact speed, location and the condition of passengers.
Further down the road, autonomous cars could help put an end to intoxicated driving. Current rules generally require drivers to be behind the wheel, alert, and ready to take over at any time. And automakers are hesitant to suggest their technology could allow people to overimbibe. But as the technology advances, it could one day provide a fail-safe if the driver can't handle the vehicle safely. "There are some complicated legal questions around it, but I certainly think it's a possibility," McCullough said.
Of course, the first pitch to consumers will include the time currently lost to traffic jams and long commutes. That could be a thing of the past. While car owners won't be able to nap in the backseat just yet, carmakers want them to be able to be productive on an otherwise wasted commute.
Not only will time spent in the car be more productive, it will decrease altogether. McCullough cited the "accordion effect"—drivers rubbernecking, reacting to others' erratic behavior, and compounding bad situations. Minus the human element, traffic will flow much more smoothly. Even if 10 percent of vehicles are autonomous, she said, traffic will improve drastically.
As cars get better at handling traffic situations, many think they'll begin to speed up as well. Raising speed limits "depends on the politicians," Stertz said, "but i think it's a legitimate topic for discussion.... It's one of the things that's worth reexamining when the cars are able to show they can help with the safety issue."
After your commute through traffic is taken care of, your car will be able to handle parking as well, dropping you off at the front of your office—or, say, a sports stadium—then driving off to find a parking spot on its own. All in all, "they're going to move people more quickly from one place to another," McCullough said.
The more super-safe cars take the road, the easier it will be for city planners. Autonomous vehicles, at least according to one study, will be able to safely drive just feet from each other, quadrupling highway capacity. "It would make it easier on municipalities to plan for and pay for road infrastructure," McCullough said.
The savings won't just be limited to local governments. As cars take more efficient routes and spend less time idling in traffic, their owners will cut back on their fuel consumption. "Smoother traffic flows and less time stuck in traffic [result in] savings for the driver," Stertz said.
That's also good for the environment. "The amount of fuel that can be saved, the amount of carbon emissions that can be saved ... I think we are beginning to see that," McCullough said. "The environmental awareness is beginning to grow."
We don't know just when all of these benefits will be realized. Some of them may come well before others. And a lot of it will depend on government regulations. But automakers emphasize that their autonomous cars won't hit the road until they're ready to deal with all aspects of driving. "What our engineers tell us is that these systems … have to be foolproof," said BMW's Dave Buchko. "They have to be able to handle any situation."