Self-Driving Cars Are Coming Sooner Than You Think

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Self-Driving Cars Are Coming Sooner Than You ThinkIt's another one of those "we're living in the future" moments: Before you know it, cars that drive themselves may be, well, driving themselves to your local dealership.

Speaking at a recent conference, General Motors' (GM) global research and development chief Alan Taub said vehicles that "partially drive themselves" will be available in just a few years, with more sophisticated self-driving cars possible by the end of the decade.

This is no pipe dream. Google's (GOOG) well-publicized experiments with self-driving cars have shown the world that this is real technology, not a science-fiction dream. In fact, it's just one more step on a journey that has been under way for several years -- a journey toward taking the "driving" out of car ownership.

From "Infotainment" to Autopilot

One of the auto industry's big buzzwords in the last few years has been "infotainment," a reference to the combined information and entertainment systems that have become commonplace even in entry-level cars.

Ford (F) has arguably led the way with its acclaimed SYNC system, built with help from Sony (SNE) and Microsoft (MSFT).

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SYNC, and the more recent deluxe version MyFord Touch, combine GPS, satellite radio from Sirius XM (SIRI), and other stereo functions with a system that links to your cell phone -- not just for phone calls, but for text messages and music as well. And it's all voice-activated, so you don't have to fiddle with knobs as you drive.

Just a few years ago such dashboard technology was revolutionary. Now, most of the global automakers have something similar, and not just in their luxury cars.

The trend toward sophisticated in-car "infotainment" is part of a larger trend toward adding deluxe features to affordable compact and even subcompact cars. Ford's small Fiesta and Focus offer SYNC as well as options like heated seats that were once found only on upscale models. Competitors that haven't followed suit are rapidly being left behind. Honda (HMC) recently discovered this the hard way with its new Civic, an evolutionary model that didn't anticipate, and isn't competitive with, the refinement and high-tech features seen in the new class leaders from Ford, Hyundai, GM, and others.

What the Kids Are Into These Days

This is a sea change. Once upon a time, when automakers wanted to boost sales -- particularly to young people -- the formula was simple: More power.

High-performance engines and suspensions made cars more fun to drive, and bright colors, stripes, and decals made them more fun to be seen in. By keeping the standard feature list as short as possible, automakers ensured that working folks and young people could afford these powerful beasts. It was a successful formula, and sales boomed.

Nowadays, high-performance cars have become relatively expensive niche products. Technology has replaced horsepower as the gotta-have sales-booster. Today's buyers are drawn more by technology than by the driving experience.

It's still true that cars have to drive well and offer crisp handling to be competitive, and that's unlikely to change. But more and more, the in-car "experience" that buyers demand is about entertainment and information -- even Internet access.

Driven to Distraction

Fortunately for all of those drivers getting distracted by their high-tech stereo systems, safety-related technology has advanced just as quickly.

Anti-lock brake systems, that 1980s technological marvel, have evolved into sophisticated stability-control systems that help "catch" skidding vehicles and make SUVs and driving in bad weather much safer -- and soon, nearly every new car will have one.

Things like back-up cameras, systems that sound an alarm when your vehicle wanders out of its lane, collision-warning systems that use digital cameras and radar to recognize obstacles, and systems that communicate with other vehicles and sources to alert you to traffic jams and other hazards still seem like science fiction, but they're all reality today.

Variations on these features are offered by the automakers like Toyota (TM), which has an automatic parallel-parking system on many of its Lexus models, as do other luxury makes and upscale models from companies like GM and Ford.

Those kinds of systems will be found in more and more models in coming years, just as GPS and systems like SYNC (and for that matter, heated seats) debuted in luxury cars and became mass-market items over time.

What About Self-Driving?

It's a small technological leap to combining the new accident-avoidance sensors, GPS, communications tools, and cameras into a system that can do most of the driving while the "driver" focuses on something else. It's leap we can expect to see at dealers in just a few years.

Even if your next car doesn't quite do all the driving for you, it'll likely be able to do things like detect an accident about to happen and take action to prevent it, maybe before you're even aware of the danger. That alone could make driving much safer -- and that in turn will bring driving your infotainment-filled car one step closer to the experience of sitting in your living room.

At the time of publication, Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owned shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft, Google, and Ford. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford, General Motors, Google, and Microsoft, as well as creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft.



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