After half a decade of hard times, U.S. car manufacturers sold more automobiles last year to American customers than ever before. The cars Americans are driving are more fuel-efficient and typically loaded with electronic devices. But within a decade, manufacturers say drivers should expect semi-autonomous and fully autonomous cars that will make driving safer and less tiring.
In 2004 U.S. military research agency DARPA challenged automotive engineers to try to build a self-driving car. Though the course had only simple obstacles and no other traffic, none of the vehicles reached the end.
Twelve years later the technology has advanced so far that manufacturers are testing it on roads with real traffic, trying to make it absolutely safe for both passengers and pedestrians.
“I figured if I was able to make a car that was smart enough to drive itself, I could probably make a car that was smart enough to be a bit safer. So from my perspective, safety has always been our priority," said Ford's James McBride.
Google admits that its experimental self-driving cars have had some close calls, but points out that in late 2014 incidents happened once every 1,300 kilometers, while last year they happened once every 8,500 kilometers.
And it's not just about the safety, manufacturers also have to make sure consumers are willing to let go of the wheel.
“We don't want to go too far too fast because the customer may not be expecting that. There's a learning curve that has to take place," said Kia's Joseph Steffey.
One thing that can help customers get used to not being in control is the driving simulator. Wearing virtual reality goggles drivers can experience the sensation of being passive behind the steering wheel.
Some cars are already equipped with electronics stemming from the DARPA Grand Challenge, such as laser proximity sensors, video cameras, lane-change warning lights and other devices.
Researchers say future cars will also be able to communicate with the world around them, such as pedestrians’ smart phones.
“We can see where that pedestrian is walking, and then we can actually pick them up if they walk out in front of the car, and the car will choose to stop," said Steffey.
Experts say that safe and affordable self-driving cars should be available to the average consumer within four to five years.