By Keith Crain, Crain News Service
DETROIT (Aug. 20, 2013) — Some huge companies have spent a lot of money developing vehicles that don't need human drivers.
I love the new technology and believe it has great potential—but don't expect to be able to buy a driverless car for at least a couple of decades.
Car makers are able to build self-driving cars today, but bringing major technological advances to market always takes longer than expected—sometimes a lot longer.
When Pete Estes was president of the former General Motors Corp., he told me that the electric car was just five years away. That was in the 1970s.
Many years ago, I drove luxury cars in Europe that were equipped with a cruise control system that maintained a preset distance from the vehicle in front by reducing speed if traffic slowed. It took a long time for that technology to become an expensive option in the U.S.
So it will be at least a couple of decades before we see driverless cars in any volume. At first, the system will be no more than a very expensive option on a few models.
It is hard to imagine anything more complicated than trying to make cars and trucks drive themselves. Not only will it require putting a lot of technology into the vehicle, it will mean a lot of new technology for the infrastructure as well.
In the beginning, a person will have to monitor the self-driving system closely. But then development will speed up substantially, I predict. Technology always seems to accelerate when it has even a little exposure to the marketplace.
For years, many safety regulators and advocates have wanted to get the driver out of the car. Automated cars may be the way it happens. Certainly, mass transit has not achieved that objective.
Automated driving offers much potential for saving lives, especially if the infrastructure is installed on our interstate highway system.
Driverless cars won't be financially viable for a long time, but quite a few companies see enough potential to have invested many millions of dollars to develop them. It's just another reason why the future looks exciting.
Keith Crain is editor-in-chief of Automotive News, Tire Business' Detroit-based sister publication for which he wrote this column. He also is chairman of Crain Communications Inc., TB's parent company.