ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The North American International Auto Show in Detroit opens to the public this weekend. It's often a showcase for new technology.
As NPR's Sonari Glinton reports, many car companies are rolling out features that bring us closer to the ultimate in automotive tech, cars that drive themselves.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: When you watch science fiction movies, you'll notice there are two things it's seems like we'll get in the future. At some point we'll all switch to that one silver jumpsuit and our cars will drive themselves.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "I, ROBOT")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Manual override engaged.
GLINTON: In the movie "I, Robot," which is set in a futuristic 2035, Will Smith is sitting in the driver's seat of his Audi, relaxing and reading a magazine. Then, he gets attacked by robots.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "I, ROBOT")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You are experiencing a car accident.
WILL SMITH: (as Del Spooner) The hell, I am.
FILIP BRABEC: From "I, Robot," I think we're a couple of decades.
GLINTON: Filip Brabec is with Audi. Now, Audi is the first car company to test driverless cars in Nevada. Now, Google has been working on this for years with actual self-driving cars on the road, but Google is a tech company, not a car company - yet.
Brabec says Audi is getting in on the game because they already have most of the building blocks for driverless cars.
BRABEC: Adaptive cruise control, which now has a stop-and-go feature. We have a lane-departure warning. We have a lane-change warning. So we have a lot of systems inside the car that are sort of headed in the direction of assisting the driver.
GLINTON: Brabec says the company is moving towards the next step, getting all those features to talk to each other. Audi is working on eliminating some of the most mundane driving tasks like parking.
BRABEC: You come to a valet situation. You get out of your car. You push a button on your smartphone. And then the car will basically go by itself into a parking structure. It will find a parking spot and it will park itself.
GLINTON: That technology is here right now and is likely to be available in just a few short years. But what's keeping all the cool stuff away from us? Well, we are. For instance, Toyota, like many car companies, has adaptive cruise control. It allows you to follow at a safe distance in traffic without the using the brakes or gas.
Brian Lyons is with Toyota.
BRIAN LYONS: I've driven it. It is very, very hard not to touch the gas pedal and not to touch the brake pedal.
GLINTON: Lyons says most of us will have a hard time giving up control but he says Toyota is working on technology that you won't necessarily notice when driving. The key is to make driving easier and safer.
LYONS: The first autonomous driving feature was antilock brakes. So, what it did was it stopped up from skidding in slippery conditions, right? So there's a thousand times a second it's pulsing the brakes for you. Things we as a human cannot even do, the car can do for us.
GLINTON: That's the kind of stuff Toyota is working on. Toyota is advancing systems to keep you from hitting objects or infrared cameras that allow the car to see much farther down the road or to sense when other cars are or aren't braking.
Jeremy Anwyl is with Edmunds.com. He says in the coming years, we're going to do less and less driving, and our cars are going to do more and more of the mundane predictable tasks.
JEREMY ANWYL: But what about the unpredictable? And this is where human beings still have an advantage over technology and computers, is that we deal with ambiguity or unexpected situations much better than machines.
GLINTON: Anwyl says in the coming years, our insurance and legal systems are going to have to work out the questions of liability.
ANWYL: To make driverless cars really work, every car needs to be driverless and they all need to be communicating, so that they can sort of parse, hey, we're coming to an intersection, who's going to go first and who's going to brake. And you need sort of rules and technology that can enforce that. Doesn't work too well when you're the only driverless car on the road and nobody else has that technology.
GLINTON: Every car exec I've talked to says the switch will take at least 30 years. Now, that's the bad news. The good news, those scary robots, they'll have to wait, too.
Sonari Glinton, NPR News.
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