Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) has received a lot of attention for its experiments with cars that can drive themselves. After extensive experiments with heavily modified Toyota (NYSE: TM ) Priuses, the company earlier this year moved to the purpose-built prototype shown above.
Google's self-driving car is certainly cute, but the vehicle -- or anything like it -- is still years away from the mass market.
And while Google's experiments have won a lot of headlines, some global automakers have made big progress toward autonomous cars.
In fact, one recently made a giant leap forward -- with a car that you can actually buy, right now.
This is what a self-driving car really looks like
I should qualify that. The new-for-2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is a car you can actually buy -- but with a starting price of $94,900, it's not a cheap one.
The S-Class goes farther than any other production vehicle has to date in integrating the technologies that will be key to the self-driving cars of the (near) future.
Many luxury vehicles -- and an increasing number of not-so-luxury vehicles -- already offer safety and convenience systems that are products of the effort to build cars that can drive themselves.
American car shoppers are becoming increasingly familiar with features such as "adaptive" cruise control, which uses radar to keep you at a set distance from the car in front of you on the highway, and systems that use radar and cameras to detect objects in your blind spots.
Mercedes has taken all of that technology one big step ahead with an integrated system it calls "Intelligent Drive." The name is no exaggeration: Under some conditions, the system will actually drive the car for you.
Under some conditions, this Mercedes can drive itself
The feature that has industry insiders buzzing is Mercedes' new traffic jam assist system. In certain situations -- think stop-and-go driving on the highway at rush hour -- the car can accelerate, brake, and steer itself, up to speeds of 37 mph.
The driver still has to pay attention, and be ready to take over from the computers. But even though it's very limited, it's the first self-driving system that goes beyond cruise control.
The traffic jam assist feature is just one of a host of functions included in the Intelligent Drive system. There are also systems that watch your blind spots, help you brake in emergencies, stabilize the car in stiff crosswinds, and assist with parking in tight spaces. There's even a feature that scans for bumps in the road ahead and automatically adjusts the suspension's settings to soften the blow.
It's expensive technology now, but not for long
Some of those features are just high-tech luxury-car excess, of course. But that's how new high-tech features come to market in the auto business: They start out on high-end luxury cars like the S-Class, then move into the mass market as volumes grow and costs come down.
Many of the features of Intelligent Drive aren't all that far from those already available in mass-market cars such as Ford's (NYSE: F ) Fusion. And it's likely that more and more of these systems will filter down into the mass market over the next three to five years.
Truly self-driving cars still face big obstacles, starting with the need for regulation that takes them into account. But the effort Mercedes has already made to integrate these systems into a cohesive package that is simple for drivers to use and available right now is enormous, and impressive.
It's certainly ahead of anything Google or anyone else is offering at the moment. But it's fair to say that Daimler's development effort isn't over -- and its biggest rivals probably aren't too far behind.
Leaked: Apple's next smart device (warning, it may shock you!)
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