Reality Check: How Close Are We to Cars That Drive Themselves?

Sep 10, 2014 06:40 PM EDT | Jordan Ecarma

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From the headlines, the truly self-driving car that lets you catch up on work during your morning commute and parks itself at the grocery store doesn't seem that far away.

Google's famous autonomous fleet has purportedly navigated hundreds of thousands of miles safely. Several states including Nevada, California, Florida and Michigan have legalized self-driving vehicle testing. And this week, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam predicted that autonomous cars are as close as three years away.

"The transportation revolution is right on the doorstep," Lowell McAdam told the Detroit Economic Club on Monday, as quoted by the Detroit News.

McAdam went on to say that "the technology exists" and incorporating self-driving functionality depends on how badly the companies want to do it.

"If we decided to do it, we're no more than three to five years away from autonomous vehicles," he told the club.

While McAdam vowed that autonomous technology is close at hand, he noted some roadblocks to commercialized self-driving cars that include a lack of infrastructure and the need for federal guidelines from the Department of Transportation.

Almost every day, another industry leader or company promises self-driving technology in the near future. Here's a breakdown of the current autonomous car landscape that will help you navigate the headlines.

Perception: Commercialized self-driving technology is almost upon us as evidenced by Google's famous white car.

The Google autonomous vehicle fleet has driven 700,000 miles safely, right? And it can now navigate hazards on city streets including bicycles, railroad crossings and pedestrians, so a car that drives itself must be just around the corner.

Reality: Even Google isn't actually that close to producing a self-driving car for everyday consumers.

Chris Urmson, the Google car team director, recently opened up about problems with the tech giant's much-touted autonomous vehicle, which has safely driven hundreds of thousands of miles only with the aid of detailed routes planned beforehand.

Relying on detailed preparations that map out its entire route, the Google car is still a ways from being ready for the everyday consumer. Even more so when weather is factored in: Google's self-driving fleet has never maneuvered snow and isn't yet prepared to navigate heavy rain.

Perception: Carmakers are racing to debut a totally self-sufficient autonomous vehicle.

Reality: Auto companies are already implementing self-driving technologies, and the first fully autonomous car will likely evolve after many small steps.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk predicted on Monday that fully "auto-pilot" (his preferred term) vehicles will be introduced in around a six-year time frame. While that may or may not become reality, Tesla's plan to implement some autonomous capability in the upcoming Model 3 illustrates how self-driving will gradually become part of commercial cars.

Along with other automakers, Cadillac has promised similar auto-pilot functionality that works like glorified cruise control and acts as a precursor to full-on vehicle autonomy.

General Motors plans to launch a 2017 Cadillac CTS with a feature called Super Cruise that will allow the vehicle to drive itself for a short period of time on the highway at full speed or in stop-and-go traffic, the Detroit News reported. Drivers will purportedly be able to take their feet off the gas and their hands off the wheel.

The automaker additionally expects the upcoming Cadillac to be the first car that can communicate with other vehicles, helping it to avoid traffic and potential collisions.

Perception: Depending on who says it, self-driving cars will be infinitely safer or far more risky than traditional cars directed by humans. Car companies have been touting the safety solutions that autonomous vehicles offer such as minimizing human error and providing alerts or automatically braking before collisions. But the FBI pointed out in a recent report that such technology could make a car a potential weapon in the hands of criminals. 

Reality: Autonomous technology will come with its own set of dangers.

Two major obstacles for self-driving cars as they make their way to everyday consumers are the lack of legal guidelines and the possibility that cars can be even more easily hacked. While driverless cars are not technically illegal, Google and other companies have been pushing for measures that legalize them outright. One potential issue is when an accident involves a self-driving car or multiple autonomous cars--who will be at fault?

Possibly the most terrifying question is this one: How likely is it that an autonomous vehicle will be hacked? Self-driving technology could make everyday consumers even more vulnerable in a world where almost everything is wireless and therefore hackable, opening the door to all kinds of scenarios.

But then again, people have become so accustomed to trusting technology despite its dangers, perhaps self-driving cars are just the next step. And as detailed in a recent study where white-hat hackers tapped into stoplights, it's not as if the current traffic infrastructure is hack-proof anyway. 

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