What Is A Self-Driving Car?

Google's Self-Driving Lexus RX450h

Pop culture has given us decades of self-driving cars.  They’ve fought crime, raised hell and regenerated after being smashed to bits.  Like a lot of tech previously considered too farfetched for reality, self-driving cars are here—albeit through highly-controlled testing and in limited areas.  Let’s look at what makes a self-driving car.

What it is.  Also known as an autonomous car, a self-driving car is packed with lasers, robotics and sensors inside and out.  Some of it is easily spotted.  Google pioneered real-world testing using retrofitted production vehicles as their “Driverless Cars.”  Others, like Audi, cleverly hide it all beneath the bodywork of their concept models.

On the road, a self-driving car does everything a responsible person does at the wheel.  Accelerating, braking, turning are to be expected.  A self-driving car can react to unforeseen events, from being cut off by another car to an animal darting across its path to its onboard owner having a medical emergency.  The science has even been proven on the track, with self-driving cars producing lap times comparable to those of professional racers.

What it isn’t.  For one, it’s not ready for prime time.  Testing is ongoing and only a handful of states have legalized self-driving cars on public roads thus far.  No known commercial or transit applications have hit the road yet.  And don’t expect a self-driving car to fetch itself from a parking garage, run errands or play designated driver to a carload of partiers.  Current rationale is that a capable person should be onboard and on standby to intervene in case of system failure or other emergencies.

Even if automakers were ready to sell self-driving cars today, federal and state governments haven’t ironed out the complexities of ownership and use (not to mention misuse).  It’s also unclear who will be responsible when crashes occur.  Nevertheless, it’s projected that several models will be on sale in less than a decade.    


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