How Close Are We to the Age of the Self-Driving Car?

Traffic JamImagine a world without traffic jams, driver's licenses or car insurance. Sounds like science fiction, right?

Maybe not.

Last week, California became the second state in the country to pass legislation paving the way for self-driving vehicles. After arriving for the signing ceremony in a Google (GOOG)-designed, self-piloted Toyota (TM) Prius, Jerry Brown, the governor of California, acknowledged: "Today we're looking at science fiction becoming tomorrow's reality -- the self-driving car."

While self-driving cars may seem like a modern innovation, the concept has an illustrious past.
At the 1939 world's fair in New York City, an American theatrical and industrial designer by the name of Norman Bel Geddes designed the General Motors (GM) Pavilion, known as Futurama, which depicted electric cars powered by circuits embedded in roadways and controlled by radio signals.

By the 1980s, the idea had gained considerable momentum. Early that decade, a German team of engineers retrofitted a Mercedes-Benz van so that it was able to drive autonomously at 62 mph through streets without traffic. Following the demonstration, governments in the United States and Europe began funding similar projects of their own.

Yet, despite the attention, the applicability of the projects for the everyday consumer seemed elusive. Until just recently, that is.

Googling Traffic

In 2010, Google, the search engine company and purveyor of a popular mapping application, entered the fray with its own fleet of self-driving Toyotas.

According to a statement at the time: "Larry and Sergey founded Google because they wanted to help solve really big problems using technology. And one of the big problems we're working on today is car safety and efficiency. Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people's time, and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use."

Fast-forward to today and Google's fleet of a dozen vehicles has logged more than 300,000 miles on busy highways and roads without a serious altercation. According to the company, one of its Priuses was involved in a minor accident last year.

Needless to say, the possibilities of a future with self-driving cars seem endless.
  • Trouble finding parking? No problem, your virtual chauffeur will simply drop you off at the door and scurry out of sight until further notice.
  • Tired of driving your kids to and from soccer practice? Problem solved. Stay at home while your car does the work -- if your kid isn't driving, why would he need a driver's license?
  • Concerned about traffic accidents and their impact on your car insurance bill? Data from the Census Bureau shows that 90% of traffic accidents are caused by ... human error. According to Google, "We believe our technology has the potential to cut [the number of traffic fatalities], perhaps by as much as half."
  • Finally, are you fed up with traffic jams? Well, if Google has its way, these too may be a thing of the past, as computer-guided vehicles will be programmed to communicate with each other and use space more efficiently so that bottlenecks and traffic jams no longer turn freeways into parking lots.

The future is now... or soon, anyway

While it's probably a bit premature to run down to the car dealership after reading this and demand your own driverless vehicle (these cars are still in the developmental stage), the opportunity to do so may be closer than you think.

Carmakers like Audi, BMW, and Ford (F) have all been working on driverless technology over the past few years. Some of the innovations like self-parking and lane departure warnings have even made it into cars driving today.

Indeed, Bob Lutz, a former vice president at General Motors, went so far as to predict that autonomous vehicles could be "ubiquitous" in 20 years.

Here's to Mr. Lutz being right!

Motley Fool contributor John Maxfield does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford Motor and Google. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google, Ford Motor, and General Motors, and creating a synthetic long position in Ford Motor.

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45 Comments

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Gumby

Why not self driving grocery carts ? I would order groceries online and have it delivered !

October 10 2012 at 3:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
.kowalski440mag

Imagine a world without traffic jams, driver's licenses or car insurance. Sounds like science fiction, right? Call it the 'rest of the world' using Mass Transportation. Only we are spoiled and stupid (financially) enough to want 310,000,000,000 vehicles taking us to our pointless destinations. Buses and trains and planes are cheaper and safer than cars. Think abouit it, please!

October 08 2012 at 1:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gosoaring10

Love the idea. Would much rather read or watch TV on a long trip than struggle with driving boredom all day.

October 08 2012 at 10:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joey

Not in my lifetime. If I see one I will pull in front of it. The driver will still be responsibilty. Happy Lawsuit Day !

October 08 2012 at 9:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
donut999

Wow. I'm sending mine down to the drive thru window for the liquor store.

October 08 2012 at 9:02 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
A.G. SESKIS

HAHAHAHA.....
What about web / computer failure ??? Who is at fault, or who are we supposed to SUE, for a system failure, that the idiots dreamed up??? Will they claim " diplomatic immunity " ????
Lives will be at stake,...and I`m sure they will determine yours is worthless,..and theirs is worth more,..for an automated system,...designed by the same clowns who dont know how to drive NOW !!
Hahaha ,..I dont see any improvement on LIFE in this crooked adventure !!
Again, an un-regulated monopoly, in which no body will be accountable for,...sad.

October 08 2012 at 7:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
iggles7561

They have to change the lyrics to " Baby you can self-drive my car "

October 08 2012 at 4:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John Murphy

It will never happen ..To much money would be lost. a speeding ticket is over 100 dollars. Insurance companies could not afford to lose auto insurance. Heck investors may have to work for a living? ,, never,, they would rather parasite

October 08 2012 at 4:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dior

No more divers licencse, insurance and registration fees...Yeah right how is America going to continue to make money from us...I don't think that they will allow this is to happen without some way to make more profits.

October 07 2012 at 10:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
fit4ufor3rd

wait, you mean Im supposed to be driving the car now?

October 07 2012 at 8:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply