There is something cool but unnerving about being a passenger in car with no driver.
On one hand, you marvel at the ability of the vehicle to park by itself, avoid obstacles, read stop signs and do a host of other driving tasks traditionally the preserve of human beings.
On the other hand, you may well feel sidelined, a bit like the early astronauts who complained that with the introduction of automated systems they were little more than monkeys along for the ride.
Despite skepticism from observers (including myself) and legal and regulatory obstacles, the auto industry is moving firmly and surprisingly swiftly toward the era of the fully autonomous car.
Already some automakers have introduced what are effectively semi-autonomous cars. Mercedes-Benz, for instance, recently unveiled its new flagship S-Class model with a host of active safety and driver aid systems that in certain circumstances allow the driver to have hands and feet off the controls.
The S-Class’ forward-looking cameras will detect if the car is drifting off the road on a curve and steer back on course. When driving the Mercedes, you can test this feature by taking your hands off the wheel. As advertised, the car steers itself to stay in its lane, but after a brief period a warning graphic appears in the instrument panel telling the driver to put his or her hands back on the wheel (the car can tell).
Mercedes went a big step further recently with a test of a slightly modified production S-Class in Germany where the car was driven for more than 60 miles on city streets in full autonomous mode.
Mercedes’ boss, Dieter Zetsche, argues that the push toward the computer-controlled car is worthy because it will help bring about “accident-free driving.”
In other words, take the human out of the equation and our roads will be a lot safer.
Plenty of other auto companies — Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo — besides Mercedes are hot on the trail of the autonomous vehicle. Various target dates for public introduction by 2020 or even earlier are promised.
Driving the S-Class gives an impressive taste of what’s to come, but I recently experienced a fully autonomous Nissan development vehicle at a media show-and-tell. In this instance, a production model Leaf electric vehicle was used as the development vehicle, loaded up with cameras and radar and laser sensors, plus a trunkful of computers to figure it all out.
Among the Nissan’s party tricks was a parking scenario. I was in the front passenger seat and the engineer “driving” the Leaf pulled up next to group of 20 or so cars parked in rows. The driver then got out and pressed a button on a key fob. The car maneuvered itself down an aisle between the cars, went past an empty spot and reversed neatly into place. Impressive enough, but then the driver, still standing some distance away, pressed his remote again and the car returned to his side.
Self-parking was just one of several autonomous exercises, including overtaking, reading traffic lights, avoiding a pedestrian darting into the road, that the Leaf prototype demonstrated.
I suspect I am not alone in feeling uneasy about letting a computer drive me to work or the shops. But every time I get stuck in stop-and-go traffic and think about how I could be focusing on other tasks, the concept of the autonomous car becomes more and more attractive.
John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.