How Close Are We to the Age of the Self-Driving Car?

Traffic Jam
Traffic Jam

Imagine a world without traffic jams, driver's licenses or car insurance. Sounds like science fiction, right?

Maybe not.

Last week, California became the second state in the country to pass legislation paving the way for self-driving vehicles. After arriving for the signing ceremony in a Google (GOOG)-designed, self-piloted Toyota (TM) Prius, Jerry Brown, the governor of California, acknowledged: "Today we're looking at science fiction becoming tomorrow's reality -- the self-driving car."

While self-driving cars may seem like a modern innovation, the concept has an illustrious past.
At the 1939 world's fair in New York City, an American theatrical and industrial designer by the name of Norman Bel Geddes designed the General Motors (GM) Pavilion, known as Futurama, which depicted electric cars powered by circuits embedded in roadways and controlled by radio signals.

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By the 1980s, the idea had gained considerable momentum. Early that decade, a German team of engineers retrofitted a Mercedes-Benz van so that it was able to drive autonomously at 62 mph through streets without traffic. Following the demonstration, governments in the United States and Europe began funding similar projects of their own.

Yet, despite the attention, the applicability of the projects for the everyday consumer seemed elusive. Until just recently, that is.

Googling Traffic

In 2010, Google, the search engine company and purveyor of a popular mapping application, entered the fray with its own fleet of self-driving Toyotas.

According to a statement at the time: "Larry and Sergey founded Google because they wanted to help solve really big problems using technology. And one of the big problems we're working on today is car safety and efficiency. Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people's time, and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use."

Fast-forward to today and Google's fleet of a dozen vehicles has logged more than 300,000 miles on busy highways and roads without a serious altercation. According to the company, one of its Priuses was involved in a minor accident last year.

Needless to say, the possibilities of a future with self-driving cars seem endless.

  • Trouble finding parking? No problem, your virtual chauffeur will simply drop you off at the door and scurry out of sight until further notice.

  • Tired of driving your kids to and from soccer practice? Problem solved. Stay at home while your car does the work -- if your kid isn't driving, why would he need a driver's license?

  • Concerned about traffic accidents and their impact on your car insurance bill? Data from the Census Bureau shows that 90% of traffic accidents are caused by ... human error. According to Google, "We believe our technology has the potential to cut [the number of traffic fatalities], perhaps by as much as half."

  • Finally, are you fed up with traffic jams? Well, if Google has its way, these too may be a thing of the past, as computer-guided vehicles will be programmed to communicate with each other and use space more efficiently so that bottlenecks and traffic jams no longer turn freeways into parking lots.

The future is now... or soon, anyway

While it's probably a bit premature to run down to the car dealership after reading this and demand your own driverless vehicle (these cars are still in the developmental stage), the opportunity to do so may be closer than you think.

Carmakers like Audi, BMW, and Ford (F) have all been working on driverless technology over the past few years. Some of the innovations like self-parking and lane departure warnings have even made it into cars driving today.

Indeed, Bob Lutz, a former vice president at General Motors, went so far as to predict that autonomous vehicles could be "ubiquitous" in 20 years.

Here's to Mr. Lutz being right!

Motley Fool contributor John Maxfield does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford Motor and Google. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google, Ford Motor, and General Motors, and creating a synthetic long position in Ford Motor.