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Google's fully driverless car looking less realistic by the day

It's starting to look like the driverless car might not look like we had once hoped.

Google

Image credit: Google

Credit: Google

Certain features of the driverless car have been slowly making their way into the real world in the past few years. Car companies have begun touting their new models' ability to parallel park themselves, or to identify people or objects in the road and auto-brake before hitting them, among other things.

Ford is the latest company to embrace autonomous driving technology, announcing recently that its 2015 Mondeo sedans released in Europe will feature pedestrian detection technology, which “will scan the road for pedestrians and issue a warning,” Ford’s manager of driver assist technologies Scott Lindstrom told MIT Technology Review this week.

This announcement of a new safety feature is remarkable if only because Ford’s cars are somewhat affordable. In order for these autonomous features to have any impact on traffic safety, they’ll need to be accessible to a lot of drivers. These features are typically found in luxury vehicles these days. By bringing it to market, Ford will only push its competitors in the market for less expensive vehicles to find a way to incorporate autonomous driving technology.

Ford’s announcement also happened to coincide with a long Slate article arguing a point that some watching the driverless car space have been saying for years – fully autonomous vehicles aren’t coming to the market any time in the foreseeable future.

The article explains the cumbersome mapping process that went into Google’s self-driving car, which has successfully driven more than 700,000 miles and helped create an overly optimistic overall view of the driverless car among the public. Google’s self-driving cars have only driven in California, and that’s because it has only mapped “a few thousand miles,” mostly within the vicinity of Google’s Mountain View headquarters. The mapping process has to take into account every detail, from traffic lights to unusual driveways, before Google’s car can navigate the roads safely. The rest of the Slate article goes into detail on how difficult that would be for the remaining 4 million-plus miles of U.S. roadways, but it’s no wonder that the people working on Google’s autonomous cars admitted to the author in the past that it would be unrealistic to expect its current process to create a vehicle that can safely drive itself anywhere in the U.S.

It’s kind of a bummer to consider that this technology, which appears to be ready for use today, might not make it onto the roads anytime soon. But it’s a warning that many people have given in the past few years.

Last year, IDC analyst Sheila Brennan warned that driverless cars may not be ready for mass use on the roads until at least 2040, pointing to the issue of managing the unprecedented amount of data these cars would create. And even Elon Musk, the Tesla founder who thinks nothing of making plans to live on Mars and building a network of pneumatic tubes to transfer people across the country, can’t imagine a scenario where fully autonomous cars take over the roads.

Just over a year ago, Musk declared in an interview with the Financial Times that Tesla’s autonomous car will be ready by 2016, but said that he sees the more realistic product being a hybrid car that allows an auto-pilot option.

"My opinion is it’s a bridge too far to go to fully autonomous cars," Musk said. "It's incredibly hard to get the last few percent."

This kind of autonomy already appears ready for the roadways. General Motors said recently that it will offer a Cadillac that can drive itself on highways by 2016. Given the safety benefits of this kind of technology, expect every carmaker to rush these kinds of carts to market.

While it may be disappointing to give up on the dream of a robot car that can bring you cross-country while you nap, read a book, or even drink a few beers, consumers probably wouldn't prefer that option anyway. As I’ve pointed out before, fully autonomous cars would likely adhere to speed limits very strictly, or else regulators would never let them on the roads. That would definitely be safer, but for those who are running late for a flight or a job interview, it would be a nightmare.

It’s never smart to count out Google, and I fully expect its technology to help shape the driverless car market in the next few years. It just might not look the way it looks today.

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