"Autonomous vehicles are an important step on the way to accident-free driving."

It's never comforting to watch a driver fiddle with their smartphone, especially when they've got both hands off the wheel as they approach a busy intersection. But I found myself letting loose a sigh of relief as our sedan came to a smooth stop and waited for traffic to clear before proceeding on its way.

What was both comforting – and disconcerting – was the fact that the driver had absolutely nothing to do with that simple, everyday act. Credit the prototype Nissan Leaf I was hitching a ride in during a recent demonstration of the Japanese maker's rapidly improving autonomous vehicle technology.

During a recent worldwide media event, Nissan 360, global marketing chief Andy Palmer issued a groundbreaking promise, declaring that the Japanese automaker "will be ready to bring a readily affordable, fully affordable autonomous vehicle to the market by 2020."

And Nissan isn't alone. Days later, Cadillac officials suggested they will be close behind with a self-driving vehicle of their own, while Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche told his own audience at the Frankfurt Motor Show last week that, "For us, autonomous vehicles are an important step on the way to accident-free driving."

Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

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Indeed, at a media drive of the new 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class over the summer, the mustachioed executive noted that the premium sedan's "sensor fusion" technologies come just a hair short of allowing the S-Class to drive on its own.

Like his colleagues, Zetsche is quick to point out the potential positives of autonomous vehicles. Proponents insist they will bring us a giant step closer to the goal of zero highway fatalities – 90 percent of which are generally blamed on driver error. They also point to fuel economy and emissions improvements.

The technology has moved past the stage where it would require expensive infrastructural investments.

And pilot programs suggest such technologies could greatly improve the utilization of crowded urban roadways without necessarily requiring the addition of new roads or lanes. Better yet, autonomous technology has moved past the stage where it would require expensive infrastructural investments. An early prototype system I drove on a stretch of San Diego freeway required magnetic sensors to be drilled into the roadway every several feet.

On paper, at least, it's not difficult to make a case for autonomous driving. In the real world, however, it's an entirely different matter.

There is, of course, the issue of reliability. Even the most fault-resistant aircraft autopilots have been known to go bad – one may have led to the downing of an Air France jet off the coast of South America a few years back. Of course, proponents could counter that even a failure every day of the year would be a big improvement over the countless driver errors that routinely take place. Indeed, consider that after the huge declines in vehicle fatalities over the last decade we still suffer nearly 100 deaths daily, on average.

The bigger concern there is whether our litigious legal system would bring the whole process to a halt. That's certainly a big concern with Nissan, product chief Palmer told me last month. The company has already begun lobbying lawmakers and regulators in the US and other parts of the world to take steps that would insulate manufacturers from frivolous claims. But Palmer acknowledged that there's a good chance the technology will wind up first appearing in less legally confrontational markets. Perhaps China?

There's a good chance the technology will wind up first appearing in less legally confrontational markets.

The ultimate question, however, is how consumers will take to having their cars do the driving. There's a sizable chunk of the population who already view automobiles as little more than appliances. And the fact that more and more Millennials are postponing their driver's test – while even among Boomers, the number of carless households is fast rising, according to a study by CNW Marketing.

Initially, carmakers like Nissan expect that autonomous vehicles will provide what might be called "almost hands-free driving," the person in the driver's seat required to be ready to take over control at a moment's notice in the event of a problem. There's that issue of reliability and, as former NASA rocket scientist and Nissan project leader Maarten Sierhuis cautioned, "We need to be able to drive any intersection anywhere and at any time to be fully autonomous," something that will take time to be certain they've gotten absolutely right.

Eventually, though, we're likely to be able to crawl, bleary-eyed into our cars – whether from too much drink or too little sleep – dictate a destination and settle in for some more shuteye or perhaps to catch up on reading.

Will the thrill of slaloming through a tight S-turn become a distant memory?

But what about those who truly love driving? Will the thrill of slaloming through a tight S-turn become a distant memory, perhaps only experienced through video games and 3D movies? We can only hope not. For one thing, it will take decades and decades before every vehicle on the road would either be sold with – or retrofitted for – autonomous driving capabilities.

Yet, perhaps even the biggest gearhead just might find times when hitting the "Autonomous" button makes sense. A decade ago, as the technology was just beginning to migrate from science fiction to science fact, I spent an evening with Bernd Pischetsrieder, then the Chairman of BMW, and an early advocate. But how, I asked, could the company that produces the self-styled "Ultimate Driving Machine" back the ultimate self-driving technology?

Simple, he explained. How many folks really enjoy being stuck on the A8 into Munich during the morning commute, or the Washington Beltway, the New Jersey Turnpike or LA's I-405? That's when you want to relax and get ready for work – or decompress on the way home. But on the weekend, the executive concluded, that's when you shift to manual and take control back.

We likely will soon learn if he's right.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      The Law
      • 1 Year Ago
      I can drive myself to the club, have a few drinks and get driven home.
      Nick Allain
      • 1 Year Ago
      Having had hour+ commutes the last two days (normally 15 minutes) because of a stalled bus, a rolled tractor trailer, and a 5 car pileup... I'm completely okay with this as long as they don't outlaw human driving.
      • 1 Year Ago
      As much as I hate to say it as a car enthusiast, but this is the future. I better get that Stingray while I can, because 2020 is right around the corner!
      Tom Janowski
      • 1 Year Ago
      Just take the bus
      • 1 Year Ago
      I am mixed on this. I do not want an autonomous car for myself but I welcome them for the many drivers I sit in traffic with putting on makeup, drinking coffee, texting, looking around in the floorboards and backseat for?, instead of focusing on the driving. Maybe then, rush hour wont be such a misnomer.
      • 1 Year Ago
      im not sure. but i have to say i wouldnt mind most people being chauffeured in rush hour traffic. not everyone is as safe, polite and focused as i am on the road
      • 1 Year Ago
      All these people claiming to love driving aren't in the working world or a major metropolitan area...LA, Atlanta, Chicago, and Denver have crap traffic and driving. I'd say that 90% of the time during the week I would turn this in auto and relax.
      • 1 Year Ago
      If people want to get to work without driving, maybe we should invest in more commuter rail and leave the driving to those who want to do it. The slippery slope of "allowing" this is that eventually it will be mandated "for your own safety". Maybe a balance can be found. Either way, the idea and discussion is coming, inevitably.
      • 1 Year Ago
      And these cars will be designed and built in France by robots! Hahahahahahahahahajajajajajajahahahahahahahahahaha
      • 1 Year Ago
      I\'ve said this before you know full well the passenger is going to be sleeping,talking, or surfing so there will be zero human intervention. So it the robot car thinks its on the freeway when its in a parklinglot like my Google Navigation does once in a while it\'ll be hitting 70 with a surprised \'wtf\' from the passenger, if they even realize it and therefore a delay in addressing it. I suspect people would like their car to be a robot car but will lose interest when they realize everyone else\'s car on the road is a robot car.
        • 1 Year Ago
        You're implying your car will only have a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and GPS (fake gps), which is very unlikely. The amount of sensors and cameras to pinpoint it's actual location, plus updated GPS system and updated in road/pavement signs, chips, sensors, and cameras will all aid in a smooth and flawless communication of information and eventually transportation. Most human death involves human input. Take us out of the formula.
          • 1 Year Ago
          And when a sufficient GPS signal is not available? Relying on GPS and a large "amount" of sensors and cameras IS putting humans in the equation. Who do you think writes the software and maintains the systems these things depend on?
      • 1 Year Ago
      I cannot wait to be able to sleep through solo road trips.
      • 1 Year Ago
      "herp derpa-derp, I want to drive a car, not be driven" - says you, who obviously lives in a major urban hub and just loves the equal parts pure patience and unrivaled frustration of what should be a 15 min drive taking 1.5 hours, because, lets face it, humans suck a driving. I like me some manual action too, on a nice winding drive through the mountains with my lady. I do not like sitting in mostly-poor-human-driving-caused traffic. If i could switch to an autonomous mode and catch up on my autoblog while enjoying breakfast, or back home from happy hour with friends, why the hell not!? It isn't like the choice would be taken from you, but for those of us who want it, again, why not?
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