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Self-Driving Cars Could Come Sooner Than You Think

The concept of self-driving cars is beginning to gain traction, and how can it not? It's something that intrigues and interest a lot of people (I think), and I'm one of them, which is why I enjoy writing about it. Some recent announcements have fueled this futurist thought into becoming more of a reality than a dream. 

Recently, Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) -- which seemingly has its hands in every sort of business and is a leader in the autonomous driving world despite not being an automaker -- announced that it is releasing roughly 100 prototype self-driving cars.

Google's cars
Aside from being autonomous rides, these little boogers still aren't your typical vehicle. The two-seated whip looks like a combination of a Smart Car and a set of wheels from a Dr. Suess book. 

Source: Google

Without pedals or a steering wheel, it's sure to give riders a shock for the first few blocks while driving... err, riding. The company plans to launch "a small pilot program here in California in the next couple of years," to test the concept in city driving. 

The real challenges to automated driving
Surprisingly enough, I have found that the real challenge to automated driving is not software or vehicle related, it is actually people related. The public is leery to allow a machine to control a task that we as humans have controlled since our teenage years. 

Stiff resistance is, of course, expected. If I were sitting in an autonomously driven vehicle, I would certainly feel hesitant with the car approaching a busy intersection, encountering a stray pedestrian, or adjusting quickly to an erratic lane change by another driver on the freeway. 

But with that being said, eventually U.S. consumers will (probably) be more and more accepting of self-driving cars as time goes on. Of course, they're OK with park assist and automatic braking. And those are just two examples of the car becoming more and more independent. 

Fully autonomous vehicles -- as in, a car that you hop in, plug in your destination, and read a book until you arrive -- aren't coming any time soon. But over the years, automakers and autonomous vehicle developers will continue to add more and more "subtle" solutions to our everyday driving challenges, (such as automatic braking, self-adjusting cruise control, and self-parking capabilities). 

I think this will also help transition drivers into accepting self-driving cars, as it will accustom them to more and more convenient capabilities. Part-time autonomous driving and eventually, fully autonomous driving will just be some of those "convenient" capabilities in the future. 

So where can automated driving thrive?
Automated driving can benefit two areas, the first of which is the freeway. The highway is commonly looked at as the mundane part of driving. For the most part, obstacles are far and few between, and automated driving can eliminate simple but common risks to the drive, such as lack of focus and fatigue. 

According to a recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, highway accidents account for $277 billion in economic loss annually. More than half of these accidents are caused by three common events: speeding, drunk driving, and distraction, which account for 21%, 18%, and 17% of the accidents recorded, respectively. All three of these could be reduced with automated driving, and eliminated one day if everyone adopted automated driving. 

Once on the highway, a self-driving vehicle could easily handle the relatively straight-forward driving -- literally! The technology for automated highway driving is advancing rapidly and the question will soon shift from "When we will have the technology?" to "How quickly can the public's acceptance advance?"

Sure, skepticism is good, because it forces the finished product to be the best that it can possibly be, (at least, at the time of its introduction). However, automated driving can benefit one other area aside from the highway. The answer doesn't involve any road of any sort. Instead, it can benefit safety.

Jayne O'Donnell summed it up nicely when she wrote in USA Today

No one would question a cure for cancer that could eliminate as many as 80% of the deaths, [Michael Toscano, CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International] says, and that's what he believes eliminating the driver could accomplish.

And that's because roughly 90% of all road accidents are caused by human error. 

Source: Google. Executive chairman Eric Schmidt, CEO and co-founder Larry Page, and co-founder Sergey Brin in one of Google's modified self-driving vehicles.

So where are we today? 
For the most part, automakers have only implemented convenient services, such as self-parallel parking and automatic braking. However, I think the real big feature will come when -- not if -- automated cars can take over the task of highway driving. 

Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) CEO Elon Musk recently said during the company's annual shareholder meeting, "I'm confident that in less than a year, you'll be able to go from highway on-ramp to highway exit without touching any controls."

Last year, Dan Neil wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal that I just cannot neglect when covering automated driving. He said: 

A fully autonomous vehicle, something you'd put your mom in, is "maybe more than a decade away, said Dr. Herrtwich [of Mercedes Benz's autonomous-research program] with a touch of regret. That's one way to look at it. The other is, Holy Cow!

Brace yourself. In a few years, your car will be able to drop you off at the door of a shopping center or airport terminal, and return when summoned with a smartphone app. Audi demonstrated such a system at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.

It's not just Google working on this futuristic task either. Tesla, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, General Motors -- just about every big player in the auto manufacturing business sees the future. 

And like it or not, that's where we are headed. The only question is, can the public keep up? It's unlikely, as technology usually disrupts before gaining broad acceptance. Just don't be surprised to see a company like Google emerge as the top player in the auto space, as crazy as that may seem.

Warren Buffett's worst auto nightmare (Hint: It's not Tesla)
A major technological shift is happening in the automotive industry. Most people are skeptical about its impact. Warren Buffett isn't one of them. He recently called it a "real threat" to one of his favorite businesses. An executive at Ford called the technology "fantastic." The beauty for investors is that there is an easy way to invest in this megatrend. Click here to access our exclusive report on this stock.

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Bret Kenwell

At The Motley Fool I cover consumer goods and industrial companies, and mainly the automakers. I am a long-term investor looking for companies with sustainable and above average growth. I also like to uncover value, dividend-paying companies. Follow me on Twitter @BretKenwell

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