Originally published April 15, 2015

Article by Paul Williams. Images courtesy Cadillac, Delphi Automotive, Ford, Google, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Subaru, Texas Instruments, Volvo

So I was thinking to myself, if my self-driving car was sitting in the driveway doing nothing, could I send it off to make some money using some kind of purpose-designed, Uber-like app? It could do a little autonomous taxi work, for instance. I mean, really, most of the time my car just sits around depreciating. If it could earn its keep, well, now we’re talking!

You may have noticed that so-called “autonomous” or self-driving cars are the next big thing in transportation. It gives a whole new meaning to the word “automobile.” Personally, I don’t think consumers have wrapped their heads around the implications of this yet, let alone taken it seriously. I mean, it’s science-fiction, right? They’re not really proposing that cars, you know, drive themselves, are they?

But here’s Mark Fields, President and CEO of the Ford Motor Company speaking in January, 2015: “…our view is within the next five years probably somebody [probably Ford?] will come out with a fully autonomous vehicle (AV).”

And here’s Nissan’s CEO, Carlos Ghosn “Autonomous driving will be complete in 2020 with City Autonomous Drive, with cars driving themselves around town.”

From Jim Keller, Honda’s Senior Manager R&D, Americas, regarding autonomous cars: “…I think 2020 is a reasonable date for almost the entire industry.”

You’ll hear the same prognostications from Volvo, General Motors, Audi, Subaru, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, and just about every other carmaker. Believe me, they’re all busy automating.

So hold on, car nuts, apparently getting behind the wheel is going to get a whole lot more… boring. Heck, come to think of it, there may not even be a steering wheel to get behind. What about “Drivers Wanted,” Volkswagen? What about that?

Why the rush from mainstream automakers? You probably haven’t missed the media presence of two outliers in the mix: Google and Apple. Currently – although this could change – they don’t make cars that you can buy, so they (or at least, Google for sure) have partnered with the likes of Toyota, Lexus and Audi to get their autonomous chops in order. As far as cooperation is concerned, carmakers may have a tiger by the tail, here, as Google and Apple… well, they don’t necessarily think like carmakers and may not even like cars. But as platforms for new software, which surely can be monetized, they think cars will do just fine.

There’s Tesla, too, a company whose not-to-be-underestimated owner Elon Musk predicted in 2014, “will be the first to market with significant autonomous driving function in the vehicles.” It’ll be in 2017, he announced with some fanfare last year, but possibly responding to similar announcements by mainstream carmakers, now it’s going to be this summer, according to a March, 2015 media conference call reported in the New York Times and elsewhere.

The Tesla technology, called Autopilot, will allow the car to “take control” on highways. Apparently an Autopilot equipped car can also to be summoned by smartphone and park itself in a garage or elsewhere. For Tesla, this is basically a software update, but if it’s effective it definitely maintains the brand’s position as an AV frontrunner.

So where does this leave us (as in you and me)?

Right now it leaves us with a lot of cars that have acquired the ability to “sense” their environment and make adjustments if required. It’s okay, they’re not self aware…. yet, but features like Honda’s LaneWatch and Toyota’s Lane Keeping Assist, Chrysler’s Adaptive Cruise Control, Ford’s Active Park Assist, Mercedes-Benz Intelligent Drive, Subaru’s “EyeSight” and BMW’s Adaptive Brake Assist point to a partially autonomous driving experience where you can, even now, theoretically take your hands off the steering wheel, your foot off the accelerator and the brakes, and cruise down the highway while watching a movie on your smartphone. Then your car can park itself.

But DON’T DO THIS! I’m just saying… these are the types of technologies that are acquiring a confluence of purpose with rapidly increasing momentum towards vehicles that can make their way through traffic jams (Traffic Jam Assist… coming soon, not kidding), through complex intersections and into and out of parking spaces without your help. And yes, once that happens, autonomously cruising along the highway will be a piece of cake in comparison.

There are, as you may have surmised, levels of vehicle autonomy, not to mention all kinds of legal issues (Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan/Renault rather sanguinely pointed out at the 2015 New York International Auto Show that currently in most jurisdictions, “You must have your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. It’s the law.”). That acknowledged, in the US, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has developed a classification system comprising five levels of vehicle autonomy:

Level 0: The driver completely controls the vehicle at all times.

Level 1: Individual vehicle controls are automated, such as electronic stability control or automatic braking.

Level 2: At least two controls can be automated in unison, such as adaptive cruise control in combination with lane keeping.

Level 3: The driver can fully cede control of all safety-critical functions in certain conditions. The car senses when conditions require the driver to retake control and provides a “sufficiently comfortable transition time” for the driver to do so.

Level 4: The vehicle performs all safety-critical functions for the entire trip, with the driver not expected to control the vehicle at any time. As this vehicle would control all functions from start to stop, including parking functions, it could include unoccupied cars.

Connect with Autos.ca