Envision the day when you can video chat or write a report while behind the wheel on your way to work. Not only is the car driving itself, but it communicates with other vehicles and senses the environment, so getting into an accident is nearly impossible.
That sounds like a sci-fi fantasy, right?
Not at all. Several car companies, including Volvo, General Motors, Ford, Audi and its parent company, Volkswagen, are aggressively developing autonomous cars. Even Google has figured out a way to make cars drive themselves.
"Almost all accidents take place because of human distraction," says Sebastian Thrun, a fellow at Google and director of Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Lab. "A self-driving car never sleeps and always pays attention so we believe there is a significant opportunity to make cars much safer."
For the small business, using AI for robotic driving means commute time can someday be turned into work time. And, it could mean a fleet of delivery vehicles autonomously controlled.
"The capability of this is absolutely realistic," says Karl Brauer, senior analyst and editor-at-large for Edmunds.com. "There might be a few odd things to iron out but we're talking years, not decades to finish it off."
The Google car
One of the strangest examples of robotic driving comes from the search engine giant, based in California, who is using their programming prowess to help build AI for cars.
Google announced in October that seven Toyota Prius test cars have driven more than 140,000 miles on California roads with only occasional human control. Considering Google's penetration into the average person's everyday life -- whether through search, maps, or apps on Android phones -- it's entry into the automotive scene almost makes sense.
During the tests, a driver was always on board in case something went awry, but it's still amazing to think about. Six months ago who would have considered the search engine giant would be letting their robocars roam the California countryside?
Of course, current AI programming is not quite ready for rush hour.
"Construction zones aren't handled well yet. If the car were to drive on a snow-covered road it would cause problems for us. We also get hiccups, for example, if someone parks and blocks our lane -- then our cars are stopped and the person needs to take over," Thrun says.
That said, Thrun maintains that Google's accomplishment is remarkable.
"Until recently, there seemed to be a consensus that this was 30 or 40 years off. And I would submit that the progress that we and others have made has stunned all of us in this area," he says.
Self-driving cars and safety
Recently, GM gave reporters (including this one) a ride in a small, autonomous concept car at the Consumer Electronics Show last month in Las Vegas. The two-seater EN-V, which stands for Electric Networked-Vehicle, was designed for use in large cities to help with traffic congestion, parking availability (you can't imagine a car that is easier to park!) and improved air quality.
According to GM spokesperson Daniel Flores, when vehicles are able to communicate with each other and sense their environment, the accidents that contribute to traffic congestion can be eliminated.
"Urban congestion is a very legitimate problem. If left without new technologies it's going to become a bigger and bigger issue," he says.
Volvo also is working on autonomous cars and already offers, in its S60 sedan, sophisticated options such as pedestrian detection and collision warning, both with full automatic braking.
The Swedish carmaker is also working on a project backed by the European Union called SARTRE, which stands for Safe Road Trains for the Environment.
Spokesperson Daniel Johnston says the project is all about platooning many vehicles together -- a sort of long-distance game of "follow the leader" in which all the occupants can do other things instead of paying attention to the road.
"The idea is to compact distances between lead and following cars. Compacting space allows for more cars in one lane," he says, adding that platooning also saves fuel by reducing air resistance, resulting in the use of less horsepower.
What about people who like driving?
Along with Stanford University and Oracle, Audi and Volkswagen have successfully created the Autonomous Audi TTS Pike's Peak Research Car which last September completed the 12.42-mile Pike's Peak International Hill Climb without any driver behind the wheel.
Because some people actually like driving, Dr. Burkhard Huhnke, executive director of the Audi Electronics Research Laboratory in Palo Alto, Calif., says Audi is less concerned about making fully autonomous cars and is more focused on "reducing accidents down to zero. That would be a dream."
He says Audi is working toward that lofty goal by experimenting with its self-driving car and through a new research collaboration with four universities in California and Michigan to bring as much information as possible about drivers and their environments into the vehicle.
Cars that talk to one another
Edmunds' Karl Brauer says the technology in today's new cars like Audi's A8, which is covered from head to toe in sensors, has several cameras and is connected to the Internet, making the prospect of cars talking to each other and automatically averting dangers on the road much more feasible.
"We can put sensors in roadways. We can put sensors in cars. We can put GPS devices in vehicles so that they are aware of where they are and what's around them. That can already be done now -- it's largely what the Google car does. But it's going to cost money and it's going to require some standardization work," he says.
About that standardization, Ford recently said it is partnering with other auto makers and the federal government to create a single language that ensures all vehicles can talk to each other based on a common communication standard. The company says its involvement is part of a stepped-up commitment to developing wirelessly connected intelligent vehicles.
Steve Birkeland, who owns a Minnesota-based company called Custom Canopy, says he often drives hundreds or more miles to get to a job site and would be interested in reclaiming time spent in the car as long as doing so was safe. "I could easily see a sleeping area where I would leave for Denver after dinner, watch a movie, go to sleep and wake up in the morning in Denver."
Not everyone is buying the idea of cars that talk to each other and drive themselves. Paul Burton, who owns West Point Driving School in Sacramento, says, "Unless autonomous cars are vastly superior to the average teenage brain -- which is pretty sophisticated -- they're going to make a lot of mistakes."
According to Thrun, the AI is coming along, however. In the next decade (or less), your car might just drive you home. Now if we can just figure out how to make them brew coffee.