A peek into our autonomous car future

his year’s North American International Auto Show marks the debut of AutoMobili-D, a new exhibition dedicated to the future of car tech and autonomous vehicles. While we’re still a long way from regularly seeing fully autonomous vehicles on the road, the technology is here, automakers want more of it – and legislators nationwide are putting regulations in place now for future advancement. Here’s where things stand now.

What are they?

Autonomous cars use various radars, sensors, cameras, GPS technology and other devices to perform many driving functions without human input. In theory, they drive themselves. But that’s not the reality – at least not yet.

Who’s making them?

Pretty much every automaker, from Audi to Volvo, Ford to General Motors, is at very least researching autonomous technology, engineering it in labs in Silicon Valley and testing vehicles on tracks and some public roads across the country – Michigan included. Google, too, has made it well known it plans to put a self-driving car on the market in 2020. And plenty of startups are cropping up, sometimes producing the cars themselves or making the technology and getting acquired.

These systems are being tested for everything, from avoiding impending collisions to rerouting you in traffic jams to performing vehicle functions with or without a driver on hand in stop-and-go traffic and at high speeds.

But right now, the most “self-driving” vehicles you can buy come from companies such as Mercedes-Benz, Tesla and Volvo. Under various names, they provide assistance for steering, acceleration and braking at speeds of up to 120 mph in some cases.


How is it legal?

It varies from state to state, but many states are updating vehicle safety laws to accommodate autonomous vehicles now or well into the future.

Gov. Rick Snyder on Dec. 9 signed into law some of the nation’s most sweeping laws regarding autonomous vehicles. They’re now legal on all public roadways in the state and can also be used to pick up and drop off passengers – as Uber announced this fall it would start doing in Pennsylvania.

Autonomous cars operating in Michigan will also not be required to have a conventional steering wheel and pedals, something that runs counter to the mood of federal legislators who, as of now, have guidelines but not laws on the matter.

Other states, such as California, have taken some of these steps in the last couple of years to set up legislation to allow autonomous cars and open up more testing in real-life traffic situations in the hopes of improving the technology and learning more about it.

Will they replace drivers?

Not exactly, but maybe watch your back in the next few years if you drive Uber or a similar service.

Uber in September launched a pilot program of autonomous UberX cars in Pittsburgh and has also partnered with Volvo to build the basis of new autonomous vehicle using parts from some of that company’s line of cars. GM has also tried to tie the knot with Lyft but plans on launching autonomous car-sharing based on the all-electric Chevy Bolt.

Google’s car also aims to replace drivers, but if it reaches production by its target 2020 date, legislation may not necessarily allow for Google’s vision – or Uber or Lyft’s, either.

Michigan’s new laws may be among the nation’s most welcoming to the self-driving concept in the country, but no company is ready to withdraw all of their drivers just yet.

What does this mean for me?

Today, you can buy a number of cars with autonomous driving abilities – they just don’t exactly drive themselves yet. They require some driver input and, for liability and legislative reasons, require your attention. What they are able to do is help prevent collisions and reduce driver fatigue, meaning it will compensate should your attention become divided for a few seconds.

The technology to allow drivers to enter a destination in a navigation screen and let the car do everything else is coming together. But the question from automakers, lawmakers and the public is whether drivers and our roads are ready for that yet.

Much of the future of autonomous cars has yet to be mapped. Until then, keep both hands on the wheel and greet your human Uber driver when you get in their car.

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