Even Non-'Driverless' Cars Will Soon Take More Control

Google's Driverless Cars
Eric Risberg/AP

"Do you have anything in a stick shift? I hate automatic transmissions -- I like to drive the car, not have the car drive me."
-- Overheard at a used car dealer

Whether you sympathize with that sentiment or think the car buyer overheard above is an automotive Luddite, the fact remains: Long term, he's probably out of luck.

Manual transmissions are going the way of the dodo. While there are still a few available -- Honda's Accord, Volkswagen's Passat and BMW's 3 Series being notable examples -- there seems to be a widespread preference for automatic. And if the trends travel much farther along the road we're on now, pretty soon, the cars really will be driving us -- and not just automatically, but autonomously.

(Almost) Self-Driving Cars

In April, Consumer Reports did a big story on self-driving car technology. And as it turns out, Google's (GOOGL) (GOOG) test fleet of 100 driverless cars may not (yet) be ready for prime time. But a host of driverless or driver-light tech already exists, and it's paving the way towards an autonomous car future. The technology includes:

  • Forward-collision warning, or FCW, uses cameras and sensors to detect objects such as cars, bicycles or pedestrians in front of a car -- and the car alerts the driver if they get too close, or it can apply the brakes itself if necessary.

  • Blind-spot monitoring sensors alert a driver of danger when attempting to change lanes, if there's another car in the way. Pedestrian detection, a similar technology using the same equipment, warns of pedestrians in a car's path.

  • Adaptive cruise control pairs the sensors from FCW with a computer that tells the car when to brake or accelerate to maintain a set distance behind a "lead" car ahead.

  • Lane departure warning automatically keeps an eye on the road's median and shoulder, and it sounds an alarm if a sleepy driver begins to drift out of the lane.

Why Do We Need This?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, deaths from motor vehicle accidents "increased in 2012 after six consecutive years of declining fatalities" to 33,561. While final figures aren't yet in, the National Safety Council estimates that fatalities increased again in 2013, up as much as 4.9 percent to 35,200 people, plus an additional 3.8 million crash injuries requiring medical attention.

Research shows that some 90 percent of these deaths were due to human error. An autonomous car, by removing human frailties from the equation, might be able to reduce these numbers. Research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety cited by Consumer Reports shows that inclusion of FCW alone reduces the incidence of automobile crashes by 7 percent, while pairing an automatic braking system with FCW cuts crash incidence by 14 to 15 percent.

While some drivers might worry that autonomous cars may cause accidents and kill people -- and they will, because no machine is perfect -- the facts are clear: They'll kill fewer people than human drivers do.

How Much Will It Cost Me?

Considering the impact on cost, Consumer Reports observed that most FCW, LDW and similar crash-avoidance technology offered in cars today is bundled into high-priced options packages in higher-end automobiles. The publication estimates that on average, these packages add about $2,000 to the price of a new car. (That sounds like a lot, but it's less than the additional cost of hybridizing a standard internal combustion engine car).

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%For car companies like Ford (F) and General Motors (GM), this kind of bundling makes economic sense. So long as crash avoidance technology remains a novelty, the companies can use it to lure those consumers into higher-margin luxury options packages, boosting their profit margins. Meanwhile, scaling up production of these features will gradually lower their price, due to efficiencies of scale -- and will make the options more affordable to more budget-conscious consumers.

But will mainstream consumers be willing to bite the bullet and pay extra for crash avoidance tech? Early signs are optimistic. A recent IIHS field test of the technology found that 72 percent of car drivers who were given the opportunity to try out crash avoidance features "would want them in their personal vehicle."

Once automakers realize that this is what consumers want, the future becomes inevitable. Autonomous cars are coming.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Ford, General Motors and Google (A shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford and Google (A shares).​

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