What will happen with self-driving cars in 2016?
In 2015 Tesla Motors jumped into the self-driving revolution with a software update that enabled several self-driving features on its Model S sedan.
So far, Tesla's "Autopilot" system is pretty limited. Its capabilities go further than the first self-driving system to hit the market, Mecedes-Benz's Intelligent Drive, but it's still limited mostly to highway use -- and there has to be a driver at the wheel at all times.
I don't think we'll see fully autonomous cars that can handle any conditions for sale for a few more years yet. But in 2016, we'll see more automakers add highway-capable systems -- and perhaps one or two that go a little further.
Coming soon: More self-driving capabilities in posh luxury cars
Some of what's coming is well-known. Volkswagen Group's (NASDAQOTH:VWAGY) Audi unit has been showing off its self-driving capabilities in tests for months now. Its "Piloted Driving" system is expected to come to market in 2016.
That system has been developed with giant auto supplier Delphi (NYSE:DLPH), which is positioning itself as a leading supplier of self-driving components. It works closely with mobile-camera experts Mobileye -- as does giant General Motors (NYSE:GM), which owns a stake in Mobileye.
GM is also expected to bring the first iteration of its self-driving system, called "Super Cruise," to market next year as an option on its big new Cadillac CT6 sedan.
The first iteration of Super Cruise is expected to have capabilities roughly similar to those of Tesla's Autopilot, but (like Tesla) GM is working on much more advanced self-driving capabilities that it will introduce over the next few years. BMW (NASDAQOTH:BAMXF) is also expected to step up in the next year or so with a highway-capable self-driving system for its big 7 Series sedan.
Toyota (NYSE:TM) may also get into this game in 2016. It's working on a comprehensive self-driving system that it expects to introduce around 2020. It's possible that some self-driving features could show up in its Lexus models as soon as next year. Ford (NYSE:F) also says that it plans to ramp up testing of its own self-driving system in 2016, but it may not have that system available for sale for another few years.
None of these automakers have told us exactly what their upcoming systems will and won't do. Nor do we know what Tesla has in mind for the next iteration of its Autopilot. But hands-off-the-wheel capabilities in highway-driving situations are rapidly becoming the minimum needed for a credible entry, at least among higher-end luxury brands. It's likely that at least one or two of those contenders will go considerably further next year -- as long as the law allows.
Automotive innovation follows a (usually) predictable path
The choice of Audi and Cadillac to premier self-driving systems from VW and GM was no accident. It's common for automakers to introduce new technology on high-end luxury cars first, rolling it out in subsequent years as costs come down and the automakers gain experience with the technology. (This has been Tesla's path, too.)
That has been the pattern with pretty much every innovation we now take for granted in mainstream cars, from traction control and anti-lock brakes all the way back to power windows and the first automatic transmissions in the late 1930s.
For all of the noise that Silicon Valley companies have made about self-driving cars, it continues to look likely that the first fully self-driving vehicles available to consumers will come from a familiar automaker -- or from Tesla. But while that first self-driving car is likely to be a big luxury sedan or SUV, it's also likely that it won't be long after that first self-driving luxury car's debut until the technology finds its way to mainstream models.