Your Next Car Won't Drive Itself - but That's Coming Soon

GoogleGoogle's prototype self-driving car is cute and different. But the first real self-driving cars will probably look a lot like the cars we have today.
It still sounds like something from the distant future, but cars that can drive themselves could be showing up at dealers before long.

Google (GOOG) (GOOGL) has made headlines for a few years now with a cutesy-yet-futuristic prototype that it's using for research. It almost looks more like a cartoon kitten than it does like the cars we have today. All it needs are ears and a purr.

Google's vision of the car of the future is probably far-fetched, though. The first self-driving cars we'll actually be able to buy will almost certainly look a lot like today's luxury cars.

In fact, some limited self-driving technology is already on the market, and more is coming soon. But even though the technology is now very advanced, fully self-driving cars won't be coming to market for a while yet. Here's why.

The Biggest Roadblock to Self-Driving Cars Isn't Technology

The technology needed to enable a car to safely drive itself is super-advanced. Cars will have to have new kinds of sensors and cameras, experts say -- and a whole lot of new computer power, with a whole lot of software.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-A lot of the required technology already exists. Some of it is already being incorporated into new cars. Here's the hard part: the legal questions. %But that might be the easy part. In fact, a lot of the required technology already exists. Some of it is already being incorporated into new cars.

Here's the hard part: the legal questions. If a self-driving car gets into an accident, who's responsible? Or put more broadly, what kinds of rules will be needed to decide who's responsible? Those rules don't exist yet. Figuring out the new rules of the road is a task that will require input from industry experts, state and federal regulators, and political leaders.

Much remains to be done, and it could take years. But some of the work has already started. Back in 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a policy guiding what it calls "vehicle automation," giving states some recommendations for rules and laying out a good framework for thinking about self-driving technology.

One thing that policy makes clear: While fully self-driving cars are still in the future, there's already quite a bit of "self-driving" technology on the market. But getting from the technology we have to fully self-driving cars will be a long, complicated process.

Some Self-Driving Tech Is on the Market, and More Coming Soon

NHTSA's policy distinguishes five levels of vehicle automation, from Level 0 (a low-tech car with a human driver) to Level 4, a car that is fully capable of driving itself anywhere.

Level 1 and Level 2 have been here for a while. These include cars with features like electronic stability control (Level 1) and the latest "adaptive" cruise control systems that will automatically keep you in your lane and at a safe distance from the car in front of you while on the highway (Level 2).

Level 3 is where it starts to get interesting. A Level 3 car can drive itself -- but only under certain conditions, and always with a human driver ready to take over when needed. Mercedes-Benz's latest Intelligent Drive system, which can fully control the car in stop-and-go highway traffic, or Tesla's (TSLA) Autopilot, which will allow drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel during highway cruising, are examples of Level 3 systems.

There will be a lot more Level 3 cars on the market soon. General Motors (GM), Audi and BMW (BAMXF) are all expected to launch systems that can do the driving under some highway conditions in the next year or two. Ford (F), BMW and Tesla have all shown or announced systems that will park a car without a driver on board.

These kinds of systems are coming. Initially, they'll be featured on expensive luxury cars, but they'll make their way to mainstream models pretty quickly. Your next new car might have one.

But Level 4 -- the system that drives the car to wherever you want to go, under any conditions -- is probably still quite a ways off. That's partly because of the still-unresolved legal questions. But it's also because the technology, good as it is, isn't good enough yet.

Why Fully Self-Driving Cars Are Still a Ways Off

Here's the challenge with Level 4: The system just has to work, period. Every time.

Today's technology is probably sufficient to build a self-driving car that mostly works, most of the time. That's not good enough. Imagine a car company that released a self-driving system that worked perfectly 9,999 times out of 10,000 -- but then it had an accident.

That's not good enough for Americans (or anyone else) to trust the technology. But getting from "mostly works" to "works every time" probably won't require any huge new technological breakthroughs.

Instead, it'll require testing, refinement, and more testing -- enough testing to convince the regulators, and the automakers' legal departments, that it's safe enough to go public. And just like the rule-making that will be needed before we set self-driving cars loose on American roads, the testing and refinement is likely to take several years, at least.

Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends BMW, Ford, General Motors, Google (A and C shares) and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford, Google (A and C shares) and Tesla Motors. Check out The Motley Fool's free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.​
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