Google, Audi, Toyota, and the Brave New World of Driverless Cars

Buckle up America—soon your car will be driving you. Abby Haglage on the brave new world of driverless cars.

Somewhere in California, the tech gods are reinventing the wheel—one driverless car at a time. If you’re new to the concept, take a peek. There you are, sitting comfortably in the back seat of your Audi A7 as it maneuvers around steep turns, moving objects, and traffic lights: all with the ease and elegance of a seasoned chauffeur. Destination reached—a restaurant, let’s say—and out you go, punching directions into your smartphone akin to: “Hey, car, go park on Sixth Avenue.” An hour or two later (too much wine?) and you’re ready to call it a night. You call, car comes. A quick nap in the back seat, perhaps, and suddenly you’re home.

Ready or not: the future of cars has arrived. At last week’s 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, Audi and Toyota proudly debuted their newest autonomous-car models. Outfitted with high-definition cameras, radars, infrared projectors, and satellite-connected tools, the vehicles seem smarter than the humans who made them. It’s an exhilarating concept, the idea that one day our cars will be driving us. Or wait ... is it?

John Nielsen, the director of automotive engineering at the American Automobile Association, for one, is ecstatic. “It’s an incredibly exciting time,” he says, with audible zeal. “We’re all very interested in the technology; we’re watching it closely. It’s a tremendous development.” After driving—or rather, being driven in—one of Google’s prototypes, Nielsen is a bona fide fan. For good reason. In the world of driverless cars, the possibilities are endless. Among the list of fascinating new advances presented at this year’s CES was the Audi’s ability to park itself inside a multistory garage. Brad Stertz, a spokesperson for Audi, says the once clunky, driverless-vehicle concept is now almost “indistinguishable” from a regular car. He’s not lying. Where once sat a mess of computers in the passenger's seat now stands a tidy motherboard no larger than an iPad. “This technology will be ready by the end of the decade,” Stertz assures me, “or at least early into the next one.”

Audi and Toyota’s accomplishments aside, it’s Google, in many ways, that’s leading the charge. After Sebastian Thurn—Google’s Street View cofounder—won the Pentagon’s 2005 DARPA challenge with his robot car “Stanley,” the company went ready, set, ride. Since then, Google has successfully covered more than 400,000 miles while in self-driving mode, across a wide variety of terrain and road conditions in California. Not to mention getting Gov. Jerry Brown to make driverless cars in California street-legal.

But the project isn’t just about technology, says Google spokesman Jay Nancarrow, it’s also about “improving people’s lives.” With the ability to make driving decisions 20 times per second, the vehicles might have a good thing going. “Self-driving cars never get sleepy or distracted,” Nancarrow points out. That and they never get drunk.

Still, for all the technological prowess of driverless cars, one wonders, won’t we miss driving? Well, yes, admits—reluctantly—Bailey Wood, the director of legislative affairs and communication for the National Automobile Dealers Association. A stick-shift loyalist—even in the dead heat of Washington, D.C., traffic—Wood is a hopeless, car-loving, romantic. He’s not alone. “America has always had a romance with the automobile, we’ll always continue to do so,” he says. “But driving is a privilege, the ability to go to drive out onto the empty road—it’s one of the few true freedoms we have left.” Woods, who grew up in his grandfather’s auto shop, says Americans like him have “oil in their blood.”

Roberto Lorenzutti is one of them. A 65-year-old Italian-American motor-shop owner living in Brooklyn, he’d never fathomed the concept of driverless cars. "When I’m driving a car, I can’t describe the feeling,” he says, nearly smiling through the phone. “I’m the happiest guy in the world." Like many in his line of work, Lorenzutti began his career as a young boy, helping his father run the family’s auto shop. Now, after 52 years in the car industry, he’s surprised to hear that driverless cars may one day be a reality. “Well,” he says gruffly, in a nearly imperceptible Italian accent, “they’ll need to be very smart, these cars.” Then—half to himself—“So many things to remember, need to adjust all of the conditions, the heat, the gas, when to turn. Once Lorenzutti lets the new idea sink in, he isn’t entirely opposed. In fact, in some ways he decides, it’s a good thing. With all the “distractions” drivers face these days, “texting, radio, talking on the phone,” maybe it’s time humans handed over the wheel.

But will he? “Never,” he says.

Will anyone? The hundreds of thousands of Americans who rely on driving as their means of employment hope the answer will be no. When asked about the prospect of driverless cars, Sanjay Nandi—one of approximately 40,000 cab drivers in New York City—summed it up in two words: “Not good.”

Beyond the issue of job loss, the larger problem of culpability looms. If no one is driving the car and it crashes, who is to blame? David Goodwin, a partner at Covington & Burling LLP in San Francisco who specializes in insurance, says the law will deal with the new technology as it does any other risky business. “The person who engages in the risky business bears the burden of culpability.”

If you think insurance rates are high now, imagine them for a car you’re not even driving.

While the finished product is probably years from hitting the market, the era of driverless cars is closer than you think. So have fun driving your car while you still can. Pretty soon it will be driving you.