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When Will You Have a Car That Drives Itself?

The self-driving car has been a touchstone of futurism for a long time. Is it about to become reality?

The self-driving car has been a touchstone of futurism for a long time. Is it about to become reality?

Imagine: You're driving down the highway while drinking coffee and reading the newspaper—but you're not putting any of your fellow drivers in danger. Instead, you're letting the car itself take the wheel as it guides you safely down the road, all the while saving fuel. It's not a pipe dream—it's the vision of vehicle manufacturers working on the next generation of autonomous cars.

Autonomous vehicles, or vehicles that drive themselves, have actually been around for decades. The EUREKA Prometheus Project, launched in 1987 by Daimler-Benz AG, exhausted nearly $1 billion building robotic cars. In 1994, the project successfully sent two robot vehicles more than 600 miles on a Paris highway in standard traffic conditions (with drivers in each vehicle in case of emergency, natch).

Eureka ran out of funding, but autonomous car research has been going on continuously since then, albeit under the radar. And the autonomous vehicle craze never really caught on until recently. In the past months, we've seen companies like GM, Volvo, and even Google getting serious about autonomous vehicle research projects.

Perhaps the most well-known autonomous vehicle project of late is GM's EN-V, a pod-like autonomous car that features vehicle-to-vehicle communications, distance-sensing, and GPS. According to GM, the all-electric, lithium-ion battery powered vehicle can travel 25 miles on a charge. The vehicle could be on roads as soon as 2015.

Google's foray into autonomous vehicles was revealed last October when the company announced that its fleet of self-driving Toyota Priuses has been in testing for years—and they have already logged 140,000 miles driving across California with help from cameras, lasers, and radar. The reasoning behind the project, according to Google, is that "self-driving cars will transform car sharing, significantly reducing car usage, as well as help create the new 'highway trains of tomorrow.'"

We're not sure how self-driving vehicles could reduce car usage, but they certainly have the potential to revolutionize car sharing. Consider that a new service in San Francisco, dubbed Spride Share, allows members to rent out their vehicles, a la Zipcar, to strangers. If members had self-driving vehicle, they could be assured that renters wouldn't get into fender-benders. In other words, members might be more comfortable renting out their vehicles, and similar car-sharing services could grow dramatically as a result.

And as for those "highway trains of tomorrow?" Look no further than Volvo, which this week announced that it successfully completed testing of vehicle platooning technology at the Volvo Proving Ground near Gothenberg, Sweden. Vehicle platoons consist of a lead vehicle with a driver and several autonomous "slave" vehicles trailing close behind. The slave vehicles keep track of speed, distance, and direction, and can leave the road train at any time.

The technology is perfect for relieving drivers of stress while stuck in traffic jams—and Volvo claims that it cuts down on fuel consumption by up to 20 percent. This is because vehicle platooning cuts down on the drag of each vehicle. At the same time, platooning increases the amount of cars that can safely fit on a highway (cars maintain a close but safe distance), decreasing traffic and cutting down on fuel wasted by constantly switching between the brake and gas pedal.

Will autonomous vehicle technology allow us to move more quickly off oil and onto cleaner sources of energy? No, but it can provide us with safer and more fuel-efficient vehicles in the interim. And if companies like GM get their way, the electric vehicles of the future may even integrate autonomous driving capabilities, to boot.

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