The latest driverless cars can navigate rush-hour traffic, but what about government red tape?

Audi autonomous test vehicle

CES 2013 proved that automobile technology is growing, and that it’s going to continue that way. We’re approaching a point in history where a car isn’t just a car anymore – it’s a giant, metal computer on wheels, designed to keep you connected to the road and the world. The minutiae of driving are being handed over more and more to technology. Where we once used our eyesight to guide us while reversing, we now have backup cameras with trajectory displays. Where we once needed to check our blindspot when switching lanes, we now have sensors that provide audio/visual warnings. There is, however, another piece of technology that lingers on the horizon, a technology that polarizes opinion from outside and within the industry, and one that could make piloting a car a thing of past, at least for humans anyways. We’re talking, of course, about autonomous vehicles, and while the technology is closer than you think, a few bumps in the road remain before cars will completely drive themselves.

Until now, being driven to work meant your salary was packing more zeros than a runway model’s dress size. But that could all change soon. During last week’s 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, no less than two automotive companies displayed autonomous vehicle technology. Lexus, as it so often does, took the safe road, showing off an LS-based Advanced Active Safety Research Vehicle at its press conference. The AASRV is outfitted with radars, cameras, and more sensors atop its hood and roof than a NATO satellite installation, and while it’s easy to mistake a car that drives itself as the ultimate form of convenience, Lexus vice president Mark Templin was eager to point out the company’s primary focus was on safety. From Lexus’ perspective the “smart” car of tomorrow is best served when operating in conjunction with a driver, not in substitute of one.

Audi, as it has grown so accustomed to, stole the show. Not only did it hold a press conference highlighting five focal points for its grand tech strategy, which included expanding areas in connectivity, human-machine interface, infotainment, lightning tech, and driver assistance, but it actually showed off its autonomous vehicle prototype. Well… sort of.

Lexus AASRV

Tucked away beneath a hotel garage off the Vegas strip, the German automaker gave select members of the press a brief glimpse of an A7 equipped with additional sensors that allowed the vehicle to park itself. It might not have been on a crowded road, but Audi’s demonstration showed that the car of the future is more than capable of maneuvering tight spaces and performing complex tasks.

As a quick recap, autonomous vehicles, whether they’re from Lexus, Google, or Audi, use Light Detection and Ranging (LADAR) technology. LADAR revolves around a rapidly rotating laser beam to scans its surroundings and create an outline or “map” thereby allowing a vehicle to navigate independently. 

So how far off is a fully-fledged self-driving car? Well, it depends, but it’s not as far off as you think.

Google has already demonstrated its driverless Priuses on public roads, while Lexus continues to test its own cars at the Toyota Research Institute of North American up in Michigan. Audi’s recent demonstration shows it’s not averse to giving demos of its own, and the company was recently granted license to test autonomous vehicles on public roads in the State of Nevada, along with Google.

busy-driver
Vava Vladimir Jovanovic/Shutterstock

The problem here isn’t necessarily how far along the tech is but the amount of equipment each vehicle is packing. The technology might be right out of a science-fiction flick, but the amount of gear adorning each vehicle is more unsightly than a teeth-gnashing alien. This shouldn’t be an issue much longer as Audi already showed off a laser sensor array prototype that could fit snugly in a vehicle’s grille. In fact, during Audi’s CES press conference, Chief Executive of Electronics Ricky Hudi claimed that autonomous vehicles would be a reality by the end of the decade, a sentiment Lexus execs have confirmed with us as well. We can be sure that other automakers, Google included, aren’t far off either.

It’s important to note that of the three companies pioneering autonomous vehicle technology, Audi, Lexus, and Google, each have a very different ethos: Lexus is focusing its efforts towards safety; Google appears to be focused on convenience; while Audi seems to be camped out in the middle, a sentiment Ricky Hudi echos in his description of “piloted driving” as “When I don’t want to drive, I allow myself to be driven,” referencing situations such as parking and traffic jams as perfect instances where piloted driving would be ideal. As a real world example, Hudi cited commercial aircraft pilots utilizing a plane’s autopilot feature, but ultimately retaining full responsibility of the aircraft.

Speaking of responsibility, it’s probably the biggest obstacle staring automakers in the face when it comes to actually implementing driverless vehicles. While companies will continue to push autonomous vehicle tech, it’s another headache altogether creating legislation and clear guidelines. What happens if things go awry? Who is responsible? Where will we be allowed to let the car drive itself? Will it be reserved for highways only, or can a car drive itself on any public road? Will everyone need to have an autonomous vehicle? Will the “driver” of the driverless vehicle ultimately be held responsible if a system malfunctions or will it be the automaker? How will insurance companies play into all of this? And what legislation needs to be passed to make autonomous driving both safe and viable?

Lexus-RX450h-self-driving-car

It’s a lot of questions to be sure and ones we really don’t have clear answers to. Undoubtedly, automakers will play a key role as will politicians and insurance companies, but what about consumers? Do people even want to be driven around by their car, or is this a technology that is being explored without the real support of those it will affect the most – drivers?

Regardless of your feelings, autonomous driving is on the horizon. It might sound like a technological pipe dream, as crazy a notion as the flying car, but it’s not. The technology is rapidly improving and the only real hurdles that remain center on bringing cost down, providing legislation, and establishing industry safety standards. We’ll need roads where we’re going, even if they are bumpy ones, and likely drivers, too. But before we can start updating our Facebook statuses while comfortably sipping our non-fat lattes, we’re going to need rules.

Best to not let that license expire just yet…

Product Review

By adding features, tech, and all-wheel drive, Mazda puts the 3 in a class of one

Since its introduction in 2003, Mazda’s compact Mazda3 has been a mainstay of the brand’s driver-oriented strategy. Mazda now plans to move upmarket, and the all-new 2019 Mazda3 offers some clues about how that’s going to work.
Product Review

2019 Volkswagen Jetta offers German refinement and tech at an affordable price

With enough tech to make villains jealous, the Volkswagen Jetta punches above its class as a forward-thinking sedan. Spacious, comfortable, and efficient, the Jetta is a refined offering. German refinement comes with a serious attitude.
Cars

Autonomous shuttle rides coming to New York City via Optimus Ride

Workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in NY City will soon be able to make their way around the 300-acre industrial park in Optimus Ride's self-driving shuttles. The tech startup says it's the first trial of its kind in the state.
Cars

Waymo boosts robo-taxi plans with new service center in Arizona

Waymo has announced plans for a facility in Phoenix, Arizona, that will help to service, maintain, and grow its fleet of autonomous Waymo One cars. The vehicles operate as part of the company's robo-taxi ridesharing service.
Cars

Protect yourself and your ride with our favorite dash cams

Dashboard cameras can assist drivers in car accident claims, settle speeding ticket disputes, and even catch glimpses of incoming meteors, among other things. Here, we've compiled a list of the most noteworthy offerings available.
Cars

Tesla revives its referral program with chances to win a Roadster

Tesla has revived its referral program that ended in February because of cost pressures. This time around the perks aren't quite as diverse, though it does offer regular chances to win a Roadster or Model Y.
Cars

From cars to computers: How data is transforming F1 racing

After a single weekend of racing, a Formula 1 pit crew typically pulls around 2TB of data from the car. Everything, from tire pressure to the temperature of the track, is recorded and analyzed in the name of boosting performance -- and not…
Cars

Tesla ends scheduled servicing because electric cars need less maintenance

Tesla will longer offer scheduled maintenance plans, switching to an "as needed" model. This reflects the fact that electric cars need less regular maintenance than gasoline or diesel cars.
Cars

The go kart-like Mini Cooper will soon add zero emissions to its resume

Mini is in the final stages of developing an electric version of the Cooper. The 2020 Cooper SE will receive powertrain components from the BMW i3, including a 181-horsepower electric motor and battery technology.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Robotic companions and computer-aided karaoke

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it's fun to gawk!
Cars

Tesla Model 3 vulnerability exposed at Pwn2Own; hackers take home the car

A Tesla Model 3 vulnerability was exposed at the Pwn2Own hacking competition. The hackers, who were able to display a message on the electric vehicle's internet browser, won $35,000 and took home the car.
Cars

Is this electric car startup the next Tesla, or will it go the way of Coda?

The electric car startup formerly known as EVelozcity has changed its name to Canoo. It also announced a lineup of four cars including a commuter-friendly model and a lifestyle-oriented car. Its first electric vehicles will begin to appear…
Cars

Ford’s born-again Bronco off-roader will soothe your 1990s nostalgia

Ford confirmed it will bring the Bronco back to American showrooms in 2020. We haven't seen the truck yet, but dealers who got a preview of it during a private event say it's a true off-roader aimed directly at the Jeep Wrangler.
Cars

Recall bounty hunters needed as millions ignore deadly Takata airbag recall

It's the recall campaign from hell and too many people aren't responding. Toyota Motor North America (TMNA) and Carma Project want to give financial rewards to people who alert family and friends to the deadly Takata airbag recall.