Informed conversations about self-driving cars no longer are about feasibility. New key talking points are "When?" and "Which automakers first?" and "Who will be responsible when an accident happens?"
Nissan has said it will sell a driverless car by 2020. IHS forecast several models available by 2025. Both of these are guesses -- but they indicate how fast the technology is progressing.
What seemed unimaginable a decade ago becomes more practical, comprehensible, and real by the day. Google's (GOOG) self-driving Toyota Prius (TM) has logged hundreds of thousands of miles without incident on California roads. Most automakers are testing self-driving cars on tracks and -- lately, as I experienced earlier this week in Las Vegas -- in traffic.
The Audi A7 equipped with "traffic jam assist" was programmed to drive itself slowly in heavy traffic at no more than 40 miles per hour. (Dr. Bjorn Giesler, head of Audi's project team, was behind the wheel.) The car was loaded with cameras, sensors, and a special device that monitors a driver's eyes to ensure he or she doesn't fall asleep at the wheel. In that event, the car will safely slow down, stop, and call for help.
Think of a driverless car as a robot. For Audi and other automakers, a key question is how much of the driving should be done by the robot, how much by the driver. The driver decides. Executives at Audi and other automakers say the driver, in any case, must remain engaged and attentive, ready to take over in the event of the unexpected: a car travelling the wrong way or out of control, for example.
Audi executives won't use the word "driverless;" instead they speak about "piloted" driving. Other auto executives talk about "autonomous" or "assisted" driving. Only Google is adamant that it wants a driverless car, one that can help the elderly and the blind, as well as anyone who would rather be reading a book.