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Self-driving cars are closer than you think

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

While waiting for Google (GOOGL) or Apple (AAPL) to magically produce a robotomobile that makes drivers obsolete, the boring old traditional automakers have been sneaking out some interesting new technology that makes the cars of the present pretty cool, too.

Government officials just announced that all the big automakers have agreed to make automatic emergency braking systems standard on virtually all models by 2022. AEB, as it is known, is one of the key components of a fully autonomous car, and such systems are already in place on about 3.5% of cars produced in North America, and more in Europe, according to forecasting firm IHS Automotive. The portion is likely to grow sharply.

AEB works when sensors detect that the car is too close to a vehicle in front of it, based on the speed both vehicles are traveling. A beep or other alert signals the driver to hit the brakes, and if nothing happens, computers take over and apply the brakes as sharply as necessary to avoid a collision. Most systems today will only stop the car at speeds under 35 miles per hour or so, but applicable speeds should rise as the technology improves.

There are other types of autonomous systems on the road today as well, such as lane-departure warnings that can tell if you’re drifting into a neighboring lane, and electronic monitoring systems that can see cars a driver might miss in the rear-view mirrors’ blind spots. Both systems alert the driver if the car drifts into possible danger. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Infiniti and Tesla offer limited forms of automated steering. Next year, Cadillac (GM) will launch a feature called Supercruise that will let drivers take hands off the wheel and feet off the pedals during highway cruising, bumper-to-bumper crawling and other fairly predictable scenarios.

Those kinds of features are still a long way from a car that can pilot itself from point A to point B, under complex road conditions, with no input from the driver. A completely autonomous car could still be a decade or two away. But the technology that’s coming soon or becoming more widespread will make a lot of cars semi-autonomous and help improve safety, since computers are generally better drivers than humans.

Motoring fans lament what they see as a takeover of the car by robots. But there are important uses for technology that can take over some of the functions humans handle now. One is for older drivers, especially with aging baby boomers. Technology that can reduce the likelihood of human error might keep older motorists in the driver’s seat longer and make them less of a risk to themselves and others. And many parents would probably pay extra for a car able to override the bad judgment of teenage drivers and steer or brake them back to safety.

As for the technology companies that will supposedly revolutionize the automobile, they’re a lot further behind the automakers than a lot of people realize. Though Apple and Google have both staffed up sizable automotive divisions, it’s unlikely those companies will ever build cars. More likely, they’ll create connectivity software and try to supply that to existing automakers. Some of that may include autonomous features, but the self-driving car would be coming even if Apple and Google didn’t exist. The robots are everywhere.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.