While many people think of autonomous cars as something they might see in the far future, the reality is that autonomous capabilities are quietly making their way into vehicles that are available now.
In fact, I was able to drive an upscale Acura two years ago that would stay in its lane in heavy traffic, speed up and slow down according to what the car in front of it was doing. The car was able to stop using its adaptive cruise control if the car's onboard radar detected a stationary object in the way.
These days many cars are arriving on dealers' lots with similar features and greater autonomy is showing up every year. Already, Tesla owners are able to download software for their cars that makes them near-autonomous vehicles. Full autonomy is already being demonstrated. Autonomous cars are already traveling on an interstate highway near my office on a regular basis. There was even an autonomous version of the BMW i3 electric car on display at CES.
You can buy a car today from any of several manufacturers, including Ford, BMW and Mercedes that can park itself, maintain a safe distance from the cars ahead, automatically brake to avoid collisions and perform a number of other automated functions such as changing lanes to avoid traffic.
The biggest leap that's really needed is tying the car's navigation system into an autonomous control system and that's already been done experimentally.
You also can buy an electric car from most car makers. Each of the big U.S. manufacturers has at least one model. So do the big European and Asian manufacturers besides smaller car makers such as Tesla.
Until now, those cars, with the exception of Tesla, were limited to short ranges, or they also had a small gasoline engine to constantly charge the batteries. Now, electric-only vehicles are arriving or are on the drawing boards that bring long ranges and easy operations into the mainstream.
In addition to Volkswagen, BMW is demonstrating electric cars with longer ranges. Fiat is showing a fuel-cell powered car and Toyota is showing hydrogen powered cars that, in some cases, use fuel cells. And, of course, Tesla is reportedly developing a version of its cars that is more affordable by people of modest means.
A new automobile company, Faraday Future, is showing its futuristic FFZero1 concept car that some assert looks something like the Batmobile of 1960s television fame. However, Faraday Future is really showing a platform that can be used for a variety of car designs including a sports car, sedan, SUV or a pickup truck.
As for autonomous cars, they are already here in a limited form, but totally autonomous cars will require highway designs and traffic laws to catch up. But that may not be as far off as you may think. GM has already invested $500 million in the Lyft car sharing service to develop an automated, on demand, car service.
With that kind of money, autonomous taxi services probably aren't that far away.