Look, no hands! The driverless future of driving is here

The driverless car 'Made in Germany' (MIG), being put through its paces at Berlin's Tempelhof airport, October 13, 2010.

By Doug Gross, CNN

Will there be a time in our lives when cars don’t crash? When a Mustang can warn a BMW that it’s changing lanes – or when we can just sit back and relax and our cars will drive themselves?

Auto technology experts say “yes." And they say that some of those advances may happen quicker than you might think.

“We are seeing just seismic changes as we speak,” said Scott Belcher, president and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.

Founded in 1991 as an advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Transportation, ITSA is now an independent non-profit that advocates for technology that will improve the safety and efficiency of cars and trucks.

    On Tuesday, Consumer Reports announced that it now supports vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology – systems that essentially let cars talk to each other, helping avoid accidents in the process.

    In the wake of the announcement, we chatted with Belcher about that and other tech that could be changing the way we drive (presumably for the better) in the next few years.

    On vehicle-to-vehicle technology

    "That's going to be our next major safety advance -- on par with airbags or safety belts,” Belcher said.

    Belcher said studies suggest that as many as 81 percent of “non-impaired” crashes could be avoided through vehicle-to-vehicle communication, which uses a dedicated part of the radio spectrum that’s been set aside by the federal government.

    “That’s pretty huge,” he said. “That’s a big, big number.”

    His group plans a pilot program in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in which 3,000 cars will be equipped with the tech. Results will help highway-safety officials to decide whether to require the system in the future.

    On cars that drive themselves

    At first glance it seems like the stuff of science fiction. But Belcher said fully automated cars could be close at hand. In fact, he said, what might ultimately keep them off the road could be us.

    “The question is going to be not whether we can do autonomous vehicles, but how much autonomy we are willing to put up with as a culture. We don’t really like to give up control of our vehicles," he said.

    “But if you look at where we are today – the adaptive cruise control is semi-autonomous. Cars that park themselves – that’s autonomous. You’ve got buses that operate in rapid transit systems that, for the most part, are autonomous.”

    He noted that Google has logged more than 200,000 miles with a driverless car in Nevada (where lawmakers are considering legislation to allow automated driving) and a challenge by the U.S. military’s DARPA in which contestants successfully piloted automated cars in an urban setting.

    “It’s out there. But how quickly and how much we see it is really going to be dictated by society, not technology,” he said. “It’s going to be the liability issues, the control issues that are going to prevent it.

    Volvo has a system that scans for pedestrians moving into the path of the vehicle and can even apply the brakes  to avoid hitting someone.

    Society’s technology ‘tipping point’

    Part of the reason car tech is moving so quickly, Belcher said, is that the public is demanding it and car manufacturers know they have to meet that demand or lose out to another company that does.

    “We’ve become a society that has become dependent on our phones and dependent on our access to technology and our access to communication networks,” he said. “The car is just becoming an extension of that. We can’t imagine we’re going to lose that connectivity as soon as we get in the car.”

    “We’re at this tipping point in society right now and it’s going to be fascinating to watch it play out. The cat’s out of the bag, so to speak.”

    Automated cars, for example, could become a reality because of pressure from both ends of the driving spectrum.

    For the oldest drivers, automation could become a way to keep driving longer, Belcher said. And for the youngest, car tech that lets them stay engaged with their other gadgets may eventually have more appeal than, say, stomping on the pedal of a 1970 Dodge Charger.

    “They could care less about that,” he said. “They just want to play with their phone.”

    The spread of existing, high-end tech

    It’s a constant in the tech world. Be it DVD players or smartphones or 3D televisions, the early adopters are going to pay a premium to say they were first. But as production ramps up and becomes more efficient, the price drops.

    In the car world, that could mean more of us will see high-tech safety features that only come equipped on the fanciest cars right now.

    Belcher specifically mentioned rear-view cameras, which activate an in-dash screen when the driver is backing up, showing objects that may be hard to see normally.

    Also in line to make the trip from high-end luxury to standard feature? "Adaptive” cruise control that will automatically shift speed when you get too close to another car, and vehicles that automatically send you signals when someone is in your blind spot or if you stray from your lane.

    Automakers also are testing augmented-reality windshields, controlled by hand gestures from the front seat, that would display real-time info about passing landmarks.

    What does it all mean?

    “If we can make cars that don’t crash, then think about what that does to the cars we can build,” Belcher said. “Right now, what we build is cars that help you survive when you crash. But if you don’t crash, do we really need to two tons of metal? Can you use other materials?”

    One possibility? The “weird, tiny” cars of the future.