The prospect of autonomous cars – cars that can drive themselves – has become fodder for the mainstream media of late, driven by things like Google's much-publicized experimentation with the concept.
If we're to believe some of the hype, we'll all be chauffeured around in autonomous cars while dozing or doing the crosswords online, if not tomorrow then at least by the day after.
Don't believe it. At least, not the time frame.
Automakers, and others, have been quietly working on the development of autonomous cars for years and they are technically feasible now, at least in limited experimental form.
Nissan has proclaimed it will have self-driving vehicles on the market by 2020. And, always striving to be ahead of the pack,Tesla's founder, Elon Musk says his upstart auto company will build one within three years.
In fact, predictions that autonomous cars could be in production by 2020, if not sooner, seem solidly founded – from a solely technical perspective. But there is more involved than just the technology in the car.
Jim Pisz, corporate manager for North American business strategy at Toyota U.S.A, talked about the subject recently at a 'Meeting of the Minds' conference for city planners in Toronto.
"Autonomous technology is the future," Pisz said, but he cautioned against expecting too much too fast. "Autonomous driving is about more than robotic cars that know your name and your destination," he added.
The driving force behind the push towards autonomy is safety. Approximately 33,000 lives are lost in traffic crashes each year in Canada and the United States.
Making the cars themselves capable of avoiding many – perhaps ultimately all – of those crashes is a realistic goal. Cars can see better, react faster and make better decisions, based on physics, than typical drivers can in many situations, Pisz said.
But such a scenario is a long-term goal, he said – one that will be reached in a series of steps, probably over an extended period of time.
Toyota chairman, Takeshi Uchiyamada also addressed the subject in a recent address to the Economic Club of Washington, D.C. "Toyota embraces the goal of zero highway fatalities but believes drivers may need to remain in control of their vehicles for the foreseeable future," he said.
The driver's control can and inevitably will be enhanced as we move closer to that ultimate goal, however. In fact, many of the technologies that will lead us on the road to autonomy are already available on a broad range of vehicles.
Things like adaptive cruise control, auto braking, collision warning and avoidance, lane departure and blind-spot warning and correction, cross-traffic alert and intervention, parking assist and even self-parking.
In fact, Pisz suggests, self-parking may be one of the first autonomous technologies to be adopted. Not just the car taking control of steering with the driver in it, as is currently available, but of finding a parking spot and parking with no driver on board.
But the biggest constraints to rapid adoption of such technologies are no longer technical. They're societal.
Things like government regulations, liability determinations, and perhaps most of all, Pisz suggested, public trust.
Do you have enough confidence to let a vehicle completely take over the driving task for you? Or to drive in traffic with effectively driverless vehicles mixed in around you?
Would you be comfortable letting an autonomous vehicle drive your children to school? Or taking your loved ones on a vacation trip?
Me neither. At least not yet.
But the autonomous car appears to be the next step in the evolutionary process. So we'd all better get prepared to adapt, just as those who relied on horse-drawn buggies had to adapt to the automobile more than a century ago.