There seems to be a lot of buzz about cars that drive themselves these days, but don't be surprised if the auto industry drags its feet.
Speaking before a House panel, a General Motors (NYSE:GM) executive tried to tamp down enthusiasm and expectations for self-driving vehicles.
"Let me say for the record, that these types of systems are a significant distance into the future," vice president of sustainability and global regulatory affairs Mike Robinson said, according to The Detroit News. "Realistically, we expect that for the foreseeable future, while systems will add automation to support the driving task, the driver will still need to be engaged and in control."
Then again, it's not as if GM has historically been at the forefront of consumer tech with its cars. Outside of its OnStar telematics push and the plug-in Volt, GM has typically been a laggard in following through on trends.
"The timeframe is challenging, but we believe achievable," Nissan's Andy Christensen, senior manager of technology planning, is quoted as saying in the article.
Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) kicked off the chatter back in May, when CEO Elon Musk revealed that he had talked to Google about the viability of adapting the self-driving technology used in its photo-snapping Google Maps vehicles into its own premium electric sedans. Google's self-driving vehicles have logged more than 500,000 miles as they log "Street View" images for the search giant's mapping feature.
Tesla is hoping to beat Nissan's goal. Two months ago, Musk updated his view to predict that Tesla could have cars that drive at roughly 90% of the miles driven by as early as 2016. That would go far beyond the adaptive cruise control and automated parallel parking technology that's in place in some cars now.
It's a good thing that Tesla and Nissan are putting out tangible goals, because it may force an industry that may be reluctant to dabble in this technology to go all in. It's easy to see why some of the more established automakers are hesitant to hop on the bandwagon that drives itself. Despite the obvious safety appeal of self-driving vehicles, it may also sap some of the joys of the driving experience that automakers relish in their marketing. They also have to be aware of their own demand. If cars are safer and last longer it will lengthen the replacement cycle. Carmakers will never actually say that, but it has to be on their minds.
However, there are too many forces pushing for the technology to advance to the point where it's practical and affordable for the masses. Drivers will be more productive. Auto insurance premiums will be more reasonable. States will be able to spend less on road infrastructure. It's going to happen, and we just have to be grateful that not all automakers are dragging their feet.