Cars that drive themselves are not just the stuff of sci-fi movies.
The technology is real, the cars can now drive legally and the debate is starting on whether society is better off when software is behind the wheel.
Automotive supplier Continental is testing a self-driving car that, by month's end, could be among the first licensed for use on public roads in Nevada, the first state to pass laws governing driverless vehicles.
Continental, which has its U.S. headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., removed brake and steering controls in a Volkswagen Passat and replaced them with sensors and advanced technology to read the surroundings and drive accordingly.
To qualify for Nevada's special license, Continental engineers have racked up and documented almost 10,000 miles of autonomous driving. That included a recent trip from Las Vegas to Brimley, Mich., where Continental has a development and testing center. More than 90 percent of the journey was without a hand on the wheel or a foot on a pedal, said Ibro Muharemovic, lead engineer of Continental's Advanced Engineering unit and one of three engineers riding shotgun.
A final trip is being planned to hit the 10,000 mark in the next few weeks.
Most of the technology is already on the market as safety features to avoid accidents, or at least mitigate their severity.
Google started the debate about autonomous driving when it took a Toyota Prius and attached sophisticated but expensive equipment so the car could drive itself.
Both companies are chasing the same goal: to reduce accidents, congestion and fuel consumption. With driverless cars, the age and state of the driver does not matter, and parking is not an issue when cars can drop off passengers and drive home.
"There is a strong business case for an autonomous car that can drop you off or a cab without the expense of a driver," said Ravi Pandit, CEO of KPIT Cummins, a global IT and engineering company in Pune, India.
This is the future of the auto industry, and it is happening faster than consumers realize.
Tech is already here
A production semiautonomous car is still a few years from production, but much of the safety technology that makes it possible is on the market now. But the whole idea of cars driving themselves raises questions about liability and regulation and whether the public is ready to accept them.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will start studying aspects of autonomous driving in August with a one-year pilot project in Ann Arbor, Mich., to test 3,000 cars with equipment to communicate with one another to prevent accidents. Officials have expressed support for technology that addresses distracted driving and prevents accidents.
Issues still to be resolved include who is liable in a crash and whether drivers of autonomous cars are legally exempt from bans on texting.
"When you put everything together, a car can drive automatically," Muharemovic said.
"It's an exciting area and the natural progression of vehicles," Pandit said.
Most automakers have joined the quest.
Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford addressed a conference in Barcelona, Spain, where he urged the telecom industry to help solve mobility problems as the world approaches global gridlock. He called for cars to communicate with one another and their surroundings.
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