Everyone has seen the science fiction movies where the hero or heroine gets in a car, shouts out some directions, then simply sits back and enjoys the ride while the car does all the driving. “Someday,” we tell ourselves with a sigh.

Actually, someday is much closer than most of us think. Some of the technology needed to allow cars to drive themselves can already be found in some of today’s new cars, and even more advanced innovations are on the way. It’s only a matter of time, now, before the technology is perfected and implemented, and driver’s education becomes a thing of the past.

Talking cars

Designers and automotive engineers are following several different pathways to a self-driving car. One of them is the talking car model. This is a system that would use sensors and cameras to let cars communicate with each other. If two vehicles were trying to enter the same lane of travel, for instance, the cars would alert each other and either notify their drivers of the possible danger or take control of their own braking and steering to avoid a collision. This kind of technology could also tap into a greater network of shared information and would let cars warn drivers of other, more distance situations:another vehicle running a red light, for instance, or road construction ahead.

Scanning the road

Another experimental system in the works at Audi is one that crosses cruise control with Wi-Fi signals. Rather than simply analyzing the road conditions and locations of other vehicles in the immediate area, this technology will be able to look down the road for several miles. It will take into account things like surface conditions, traffic density and braking distances to plan a route that optimizes travel time as well as fuel consumption. This will not only save the driver time and money but could also decrease the car’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Stopping and Starting

Adaptive cruise control systems are another step on the road to self-driving cars. These systems are already being offered, at a hefty price, in some high-end vehicles. Adaptive cruise control uses laser-assisted radar which allows a car to, in a sense, latch onto the car in front of it and match that car’s speed and direction. Because the adaptive cruise control will maintain a preset distance, if the car in front suddenly slows dramatically, the following car will slow down as well. Some of the more advanced systems will even bring the car to a complete halt and then restart it if there has only been a momentary delay. Combined with traditional cruise control, this allows drivers to move in stopping and starting traffic without having to give any thought to acceleration and braking.

Taking The Wheel

Cruising and stopping are not the only components of driving. Steering is a major element as well. While it may be a scary thought, cars are being developed which can relieve drivers of this chore. Using mirror mounted cameras, some Infiniti models can already track lane lines and warn drivers when they are being crossed. If the driver doesn’t respond to the warning, the car will move itself back into the lane of travel. Similarly, the Ford Escape can sense when a driver is compensating for a banked road, or even fighting against the wind, and can adjust its steering so the driver won’t have to.

No longer just for the rich

Another self-driving feature that is already on the market is the self-parking car. This is good news for those who struggle with parallel parking. Unlike adaptive cruise control, this feature is being added to more affordable cars, not just the luxury models. Using a steering system that was originally designed to aid fuel consumption in the Ford Escape, engineers at Ford added a parking software program and now offer the self-parking feature as an option on their lower-priced Focus. The exciting thing about this is that it proves that combining different components from already existing features will allow more and more self-driving options to be added to vehicles without the expense of start-from-scratch research.

Believe it or not, self-driving cars in one form or another are already all around us. Whether we use them for comfort, prestige or safety, it is quite clear they are here to stay. If this progress continues, someday soon, none of us will have to drive at all.

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