Self-driving car technology: When will the robots hit the road?

As cars achieve initial self-driving thresholds, some supporters insist that fully autonomous cars are around the corner. But the technology tells a (somewhat) different story.

The most recent people targeted for replacement by robots? Car drivers—one of the most common occupations around the world. Automotive players face a self-driving-car disruption driven largely by the tech industry, and the associated buzz has many consumers expecting their next cars to be fully autonomous. But a close examination of the technologies required to achieve advanced levels of autonomous driving suggests a significantly longer timeline; such vehicles are perhaps five to ten years away.

Mapping a technology revolution

The first attempts to create autonomous vehicles (AVs) concentrated on assisted-driving technologies (see sidebar, “What is an autonomous vehicle?,” for descriptions of SAE International’s levels of vehicle autonomy). These advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS)—including emergency braking, backup cameras, adaptive cruise control, and self-parking systems—first appeared in luxury vehicles. Eventually, industry regulators began to mandate the inclusion of some of these features in every vehicle, accelerating their penetration into the mass market. By 2016, the proliferation of ADAS had generated a market worth roughly $15 billion.

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