The idea of a driverless car has always been the stuff of science fiction. Even George Jetson sat in the driver’s seat of his personal flying saucer. But it’s a technology that may well be on our doorstep.
Lake Effect automotive contributor Mark Savage says he expects driverless cars to be available in the next decade or so. And he says it all started with cruise control.
"There are a lot of sensors and software that go into the cars now... things to either help us drive our cars either more easily or more safely," he says.
Consider that cars increasingly come with such features as traction and stability control, anti-lock breaks, fuel-efficient electronic control transmissions, parking sensors and back-up cameras. Newer features include automatic parallel parking with the push of a button. And a new BMW will offer an automatic perpendicular parking option for parking lots.
"We have all these sensors on the cars," he says. "They can see the lines, measure what's next to you. So (driverless cars are) not that far off."
Perhaps the closest technology we have right now, Savage says, is the lane departure system, as seen in the new Lincoln MKZ, which slightly corrects the wheel when approaching a lane line.
"So if it can center you in the lane, in theory, you can keep driving even when you get to a turn in the road, and it's going to sense where that line is and it's going to keep you going around the corner," Savage says, noting the technology would have to get quicker and have back-ups.
But what is driving automotive technology toward driverless cars? Savage says there isn't just one factor, but safety concerns seems to be at the top of the list.
"Insurance, I'm sure, will like a lot of these features that will avoid dents and dings and more serious accidents too," he says. "(But) I don't know if insurance will like the liability issues that this will raise."
Savage says driverless cars leave a lot of questions to be answered: who is responsible when an accident occurs? Would the driver be responsible, the automaker, the sensor manufacturer, the programmer?
"It's going to raise a whole different level of who can be sued and who's really responsible for the accident," Savage says.
Mark Savage writes about cars for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is associate publisher for four magazines at Waukesha’s Kalmbach – American Snowmobiler, Classic Toy Trains, FineScale Modeler, and Scale Auto magazine.