Cars that drive themselves are not just the stuff of sci-fi movies.
The technology is real, the cars now can drive legally and debate is starting on whether society is better off when software is behind the wheel.
Continental Automotive Group is testing a self-driving car that by month's end could be among the first licensed for use on public roads in Nevada, the first state to pass laws governing driverless vehicles.
Continental, a German company with its U.S. headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., removed brake and steering controls in a Volkswagen Passat and replaced them with sensors and advanced technology to read the surroundings and drive accordingly.
To qualify for Nevada's special license, Continental engineers have racked up and documented almost 10,000 miles of autonomous driving. That included a recent trip from Las Vegas to Brimley, Mich., near Sault Ste. Marie, where Continental has a development and testing center nestled in the forest.
More than 90 percent of the journey was without a hand on the wheel or a foot on a pedal, said Ibro Muharemovic, one of three engineers riding shotgun.
A final trip is being planned to hit the 10,000-mile mark in the next few weeks.
Self-driving cars "will happen in our lifetime," said Ragunathan Rajkumar, Carnegie Mellon University professor of electrical and computer engineering and the co-director of the General Motors-CMU Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab.
While he wasn't aware of Continental's project, Rajkumar said he wasn't "terribly surprised" to hear of it because the technology behind autonomous driving has been advancing rapidly.
His own prediction is that all the technology will be in place to have commercially available self-driving vehicles by 2020. But legal hurdles and societal acceptance may take a bit longer.
The joint GM and CMU lab is working on demonstration vehicles that could be ready by this summer to show off the autonomous driving technology they are developing.
"The technology is progressing very rapidly," he said.
Most of the technology is on the market as safety features to avoid accidents or mitigate their severity.
Google started the debate about autonomous driving when it took a Toyota Prius and attached sophisticated but expensive equipment so the car could drive itself.
Engineers at auto supplier Continental want to continue the conversation with a semi-autonomous version that is a more affordable and shorter-term solution. The team equipped a Passat with Continental technology, creating a car that pretty much drives itself in two of the most stressful and least satisfying driving conditions: stop-and-go traffic and boring stretches of highway.
Both companies are chasing the same goal: to reduce accidents, congestion and fuel consumption. With driverless cars, the age and state of the driver do not matter, and parking is not an issue when cars can drop off passengers and drive home.
"There is a strong business case for an autonomous car that can drop you off or a cab without the expense of a driver," said Chief Executive Ravi Pandit of KPIT Cummins, a global IT and engineering company in Pune, India.
A semiautonomous car is still a couple of years from production, but much of the safety technology that makes it possible is on the market now. Yet the idea of cars driving themselves raises questions about liability and regulation and whether the public is ready to accept them.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will start studying aspects of autonomous driving in August with a one-year pilot project in Ann Arbor, Mich., to test 3,000 cars with equipment to communicate with one another to prevent accidents. Officials have expressed support for technology that addresses distracted driving and prevents accidents.
Copyright 2008 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.