Mercedes, Audi, Ford and Google Race to Develop Driverless Cars

Courtesy of Mercedes Benz
Mercedes S500

Top automakers and tech companies aim for self-driving cars in the next five years.

This issue first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

At the Frankfurt Auto Show in September, Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz, made waves when he emerged from the backseat of a Mercedes S500 that moments before had been driven onstage -- without anyone behind the wheel. Zetsche revealed that the same Mercedes successfully had conducted a test in which it was driven for 62 miles on German roads completely autonomously using technology that differed only slightly from what is supplied on an S500 production model.

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Zetsche's stunt was meant to convey just how close the driverless car -- not long ago a Jetsons-esque fantasy -- is to being a practical reality. Led by Mercedes, automakers including BMW, Audi, Lexus, Ford and Nissan are deep in development of driverless technology, with such tech companies as Google, which already is road-testing a fleet of driverless cars, IBM and Cisco vying to get in on the action as suppliers. Some carmakers predict self-driving cars might be common sights on the road by 2017.

The potential upside in lowered costs and lives saved is tremendous. A study released in October by the independent think tank Eno Center for Transportation estimated that if 90 percent of U.S. vehicles were autonomous, each year 4.2 million accidents could be avoided, 21,700 lives would be saved and fuel consumption reduced by 724 million gallons. Plus, a yet-to-be-determined drop in blood pressure for drivers marooned on the 405 -- traffic jams, most of which are caused by accidents, would be trimmed by 75 percent. "This is not a toy," investment bank Morgan Stanley said in a report on self-driving cars. "The social and economic implications are enormous."

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The underlying technology for autonomous driving already is installed in cars like the Mercedes S500, which utilizes onboard radar and 3D stereoscopic cameras to gauge the distance from other cars and obstacles and keep the car from drifting out of its lane. Adaptive cruise control, which keeps a car a preset distance from other cars, is a precursor to fully autonomous driving.

The biggest challenge driverless cars might face is motorists' apparent deep ambivalence toward the technology. In a survey of 1,000 adults conducted by ORC International, only 18 percent said they'd buy a self-driving car; 66 percent said they wouldn't feel safe riding in one. Legal and liability issues also need to be addressed before autonomous cars can go mainstream. Currently, only California, Nevada and Florida allow driverless cars. And who is liable when a driverless car swerves to miss an obstacle and kills a pedestrian? The nondriving driver? The manufacturer of the car? The computer? All three?

Sven Beiker, executive director of Stanford University's Center for Automotive Research, doesn't anticipate full-blown autonomous cars arriving as soon as carmakers tout.

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"Lots of automation is happening," Beiker tells THR, "but by no means can I imagine a scenario where by 2020 we can just sit back and relax while driving." On the other hand, Beiker adds, "I would love to be wrong."