How Close are We to a Real Self-Driving Car?

Over the past few years, we've all heard a lot of buzz about the trend toward "self-driving" cars. Today, every major car manufacturer is developing one; the same is also true for several leading technology companies.

But how far along are all of these projects? And when can the average person actually expect to walk into a dealership and buy one?

As of now there's no fully autonomous vehicle on the road. But one comes pretty close.

On October 14th, Tesla Motors' Model S released a new software update called "Autopilot" which activates autonomous driving features on the highway to control speed, breaking and steering. When on Autopilot, the car can switch lanes and avoid collisions using technology and sensors already outfitted on the Model S. The new software update just activates this embedded technology and has it work together seamlessly. The update also scans for available parking spaces and parallel parks by itself.

Autopilot is an amazing new feature that beats companies like Google and GM to be the first to offer this service to drivers. However, as great as Autopilot is, it isn't fully autonomous - yet. Drivers can't just type in their destination and sit back while the car does the rest. It also can't detect stop lights, stop signs or other traffic signs (there are also some reports of the vehicle making potentially critical mistakes), which means the driver has to remain alert and take over the controls in these and other situations.

However, Tesla's Elon Musk estimates that a fully autonomous vehicle will be available within three years.

But is he right? The biggest hindrance to fully autonomous vehicles -- i.e., a car that can drive you from point A to point B in whatever conditions or roadway, without any involvement at all of the human passenger, beyond typing in the destination -- is government regulation. As of right now, there is no clear, uniform federal regulatory framework to guide the development or real-world consumer use of autonomous vehicles across the U.S. The regulatory landscape for autonomous vehicles could eventually be fragmented between the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), independent state legislatures and even the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

In spite of the legal and regulatory obstacles, a number of companies are competing to be first to market with various autonomous innovations. Today, the companies furthest along in the self-driving field, in addition to Tesla, are Volvo, Audi, Google and potentially GM.

If anyone will beat Tesla on the three-year deadline, it's likely to be Volvo. The Swiss auto manufacturer plans to roll-out the closest version of a fully autonomous car by 2017 when the XC90 goes on sale featuring "Auto Pilot" technology. What makes Volvo's Auto Pilot different from Tesla's is that it will actually allow the driver to type in a destination and turn over control to the car after that. The catch, however, is that only 100 models will be available in 2017 for consumers. Volvo's 2016 models already offer semi-autonomous driving features like "Pilot Assist," which controls the car in stop-and-go traffic up to 30 mph and "City Safety" which avoids collisions by taking control of the braking function away from the driver if it senses a pending accident.

GM's CEO Mary Barra has announced the company will launch a new semi-autonomous feature called "Super Cruise" in a Cadillac model next year. As the name implies, Super Cruise will be a souped-up version of cruise control by allowing drivers to turn over control of a car while driving on the freeway -- similar to the features currently offered by Tesla's Autopilot.

Audi has announced it will launch its semi-autonomous driving feature called "Piloted Driving" in 2018 with the Audi A8. However, unlike Tesla, the A8 won't be designed for higher speeds -- it will have a maximum speed of only 40 mph, beyond which the driver will have to assume control. Audi has stated that its focus with self-driving technology is to solve common annoyances for drivers, such as heavy traffic and parking, so the reduced speed makes sense. From Audi's description, it appears that Pilot Driving will primarily help drivers deal with busy traffic on the freeways, as well as parking. It will not be helpful for consumers who want to turn over driving responsibilities when traveling at normal speeds on the highway. Audi models that can self-drive at 70 mph or higher won't be available until 2020.

Google is also expected to be one of the biggest innovators in this space (it's been developing this technology for several years), with its goal of creating a completely self-driving car -- not just one with semi-autonomous features. However, the timeline for launching this type of vehicle to the public is unclear. A report earlier this year quoted a Google executive who named 2020 as the expected launch year, but that's not certain.

Mercedes-Benz has the most exciting vision of the future. With its F015 fully autonomous high-end concept car, where the interior of the vehicle is more like a lounge than a car, it has set an impressive standard for future vehicles. Unfortunately, it won't be ready to launch that future until 2030. However, the company is planning to roll-out self-driving features in the S-Class by 2020 (such as the S500 Intelligent Drive). It also provides some semi-autonomous features like "Stop & Go Autopilot" in the S-Class -- but only in the European market.

Toyota has also announced 2020 as the deadline for its self-driving cars, although how autonomous these vehicles will actually be is unclear. BMW is developing several semi-autonomous driving features, such as "Remote Valet Parking Assistant" and collision avoidance, which could be on the market in about five to eight years. It's also reportedly working with Baidu to release a self-driving prototype in China possibly as soon as the end of this year. No accurate estimates exist for Apple or Uber.

So how long will it be before consumers can buy a fully -- or mostly -- autonomous car? The key variable here is the government. Until a nationwide regulatory framework is passed that lets car makers know what standards they have to meet in their designs, what their liability is and approves these vehicles for regular use on the road by consumers (i.e., not limited to just testing or research), the autonomous technology will be ready to go, but embargoed by red tape. However, if the government acts quickly, consumers could be able to buy their first all or mostly autonomous car by as early as 2017 or 2018 -- although right now, only Tesla and Volvo brands are likely to make that deadline. For a wider range of autonomous vehicle brands and choices, consumers will have to wait until at least 2020. However, not everyone is so optimistic -- industry analysts like Ernst & Young, Boston Consulting Group and Continental AG have estimated that fully autonomous cars won't be on the roads until 2030.