Are self-driving cars coming? Are they inevitable? Is the end of human driving just a few years away, as some analysts suggest?
The answer to those questions turns out to be, "Yes and no" -- at least if you ask people in the business.
On one hand, most automakers already have some level of "self-driving" features available in their cars. Features like lane-keeping assist, blind-spot warnings, adaptive cruise control, and even GPS are all components that will play key roles in the self-driving cars of the not-too-distant future. And brands like Mercedes-Benz -- and soon, Tesla Motors, Cadillac, BMW and a few others -- are bringing systems to market advanced enough to let a driver actually take his or her hands off the steering wheel -- at least, under certain circumstances.
But it's a big step -- several big steps, actually -- from a car that will keep you safe in stop-and-go highway traffic to a fully autonomous car that will take you wherever you want to go under any conditions. It seems more and more likely that the ultimate obstacles to fully self-driving vehicles won't be technological -- although significant problems with the technology have yet to be worked out. Rather, it's the legal framework under which self-driving cars can operate -- and under which liability for accidents can be determined -- that will likely prove to be the sticking point.
At last week's New York International Auto Show, I asked several key executives from Ford (NYSE:F) and General Motors (NYSE:GM) for their takes on the self-driving future. In the video below, you'll see Ford CEO Mark Fields, GM president Dan Ammann, and Cadillac president Johan de Nysschen answer the question: Are self-driving cars coming?
A transcript of the video is below.
John Rosevear: Self-driving cars. Are they coming? Are they going to be huge? Are they going to take over the business?
Mark Fields: Well, today on the road, we have a lot of vehicles with semi-autonomous features, and those are obviously building blocks to full autonomy. Now, there's different levels of full autonomy, so I think the term that's thrown around there you have to be careful with.
But I do think, as we go forward, there will be fully autonomous vehicles on the road. There will be a certain portion of customers that will want that, but there'll be a large portion of customers that still will want to drive their vehicles but have those semi-autonomous features to make them safer drivers.
Rosevear: Self-driving cars. We hear a lot from our friends in Silicon Valley [that] they're coming. They're going to be everywhere. What's GM's take on this right now?
Dan Ammann: We obviously think that assisted driving is going to be part of the future. It's part of the reality today, right now, with adaptive cruise control, and so on, that's in the market today. So we're investing significantly in these technologies. We think we need to bring the customers along on the journey with us. It's not just having the technology out there, but it's bringing the customer acceptance along with that. We think it's something that will evolve over time, and we're investing a lot.
Rosevear: We know you have Super Cruise coming -- some limited self-driving. How does that play into the Cadillac picture?
Johan de Nysschen: You know, I'm glad that you asked that question, because people often -- and you didn't do it -- phrase it as "autonomous driving," which is really an unfortunate choice of words, because I think autonomous driving is precisely what we should not do. For me, we should harness the technology to offer driving assistance and to enhance the safety envelope; but we are a brand that focuses on making driver's cars, and so it's kind of an uncomfortable position to be in to discuss this concept.
But there are many driving circumstances where driving, as enjoyable as it is, and as fantastic as the cars might be, becomes a bit of a chore. So imagine you're in slow-moving, stop-start traffic. It might be very useful to let the car take over. If you're on a long road and it's just 10 miles of sheer interrupted monotony, this might be a useful circumstance that the car take over.
But we don't see the time arriving anytime soon -- not for technological reasons, but more or less for legislative reasons, and a whole bunch of questions around liability. That we'll get to the point where this utopia that is described by many in Silicon Valley -- where we are little pods that drive themselves around -- may not happen soon.