如今谷歌（Google）已经证明，自驾汽车可以行驶30万英里而不出现任何差错。说起来，这辆车在停车场确实曾发生过一起小摩擦，但当时是驾驶员在操作。这辆改装过的丰田普锐斯的车顶上集成了GPS、雷达和3D测绘相机技术，因而可以实时“看到”交通信号、道路情况和行人，令人印象深刻。从事这项研究的并不只有谷歌。2010年，四辆无人驾驶汽车参加了VisLab州际自驾汽车挑战赛，从意大利的帕尔马一路开到中国的上海世博会（the World Expo in Shanghai）会场，全程长达8,077英里。美国的加利福尼亚州上个月通过立法允许自驾汽车上路，成为第三个通过类似法律的州。（但目前还有个问题：法律要求必须有人坐在驾驶座上，随时准备在紧急关头接管汽车。）10月份，日产发布了聆风（Leaf）车型的自驾原型款，并表示该车将于2015年上市。通用汽车（GM）、福特汽车（Ford）、丰田（Toyota）和宝马公司（BMW）也在测试类似的车型。美国乔治华盛顿大学交通安全与防护计划（George Washington University's Transportation Safety and Security Program）负责人阿兹姆•埃斯坎达里安指出：“相关科技依然存在，但成本必须降下来。10到15年之后，人们会看到很多这种汽车。”
不过，关于自驾汽车将如何影响商业世界，如何改变包括汽车厂商、汽车保险公司、运输公司和钢铁厂商在内的各行各业，以及在这一过程中谁将得益谁将受损，相关的分析还很少。这类汽车还可以促进燃油效率的提高。例如，GPS可以发现空余的停车位。据美国麻省理工学院媒体实验室（MIT Media Lab）发布的一份报告，“在拥堵严重的都市地区，约有40%的汽油浪费在了驾车族寻找车位的过程中。”
专家认为，自驾汽车会提高生产力。根据毕马威（KPMG）和汽车研究中心（Center for Automotive Research）联合发布的一份关于自驾汽车的新报告，如今美国上班族平均每年在方向盘后面花去250个小时。如果所有这些时间可以用于回复电邮或（合法地）发送短信，而汽车可以自己驶向目的地，情况会怎么样？它在防范事故方面自驾车也有优势。想像一下吧，刚刚在公司假日派对上喝得东倒西歪的员工们被各自的汽车送回家。
Google has now proved that a self-driving car can travel more than 300,000 miles without a mishap. Well, it did suffer a parking-lot fender-bender -- but a human was at the wheel. Its customized Toyota Priuses use an impressive combination of GPS, radar, and a 3-D mapping camera on the car's roof that "sees" traffic signals, road lanes, and pedestrians in real time. Google (GOOG) is not alone. In 2010, as part of the VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge, four driverless electric vans made the 8,077-mile drive from Parma, Italy, to the World Expo in Shanghai. Last month California became the third state, after Nevada and Florida, to make self-driving vehicles street legal. (The catch, for now, is that a human must sit in the driver's seat, ready to take over in an emergency.) In October, Nissan revealed a self-driving prototype of its Leaf that the car maker says could hit the market by 2015. GM (GM), Ford (F), Toyota (TM), and BMW are experimenting with similar models. AzimEskandarian, the director of George Washington University's Transportation Safety and Security Program, says that "the technology is here, but the cost needs to come down. In 10 or 15 years you'll see a lot more of these cars."
There has, however, been little thought about how autonomous vehicles might impact business and alter industries ranging from car makers to auto insurers to transport companies to steel fabricators, and in the process leave a trail of winners and losers. These vehicles could also help boost fuel efficiency. For instance, GPS could identify empty parking spaces. A report published by the MIT Media Lab states, "In congested urban areas, about 40% of total gasoline use is in cars looking for parking."
Experts believe self-driving cars will increase productivity. According to a new report on self-driving cars by KPMG and the Center for Automotive Research, the average American commuter now spends 250 hours a year behind the wheel of a vehicle. What if those hours were spent answering e-mails or (legally) sending texts as the car drove itself? There are liability advantages too. Imagine tipsy employees driven home by their car from the office holiday party.
The technology could be a boon to the trucking industry. Picture long lines, or "platoons," of self-driving 18-wheelers, 12 inches apart, speeding down a special lane on the Interstate at 100 mph. Richard Wallace, of the Center for Automotive Research, estimates that self-driving trucks would boost fuel efficiency by 15% to 20%. "No drivers, no stops for fuel and food, and no one sleeping overnight in the cab with the air conditioning running," he says.
In remote areas, where labor is scarce, mining companies can use giant trucks carrying tons of ore without an operator at the seat. The mining giant Rio Tinto, in fact, has deployed exactly this kind of vehicle in Western Australia. Because it no longer needs drivers, it saves as much as $100,000 a year per truck.
Cars already contain roughly 100 million lines of computer code to run engines, electric braking and steering systems, and features that are precursors of self-driving cars, such as lane warning systems and traction control, in which cars take over braking and steering to avoid skids. As cars become more autonomous, software needs will increase -- which is good news for Google and Intel (INTC) (the chipmaker is investing $100 million in electronics for autonomous vehicles).