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The Wheel Thing: Autonomous cars creep closer to reality

Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion
This futurist concept car, shown at CES 2015, features a pod-like interior with swivel seats and video screens in the doors.
Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion This futurist concept car, shown at CES 2015, features a pod-like interior with swivel seats and video screens in the doors.
Daimler AG - Global Communication

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Look Ma, no hands.

Despite voracious skeptics and vast legal and liability issues, automakers seem determined to bring self-driving cars to market.

They made that clear at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where car manufacturers from Audi to Ford showed off ideas for the future, and futurist technology that's available now.

Looking out to 2030 and beyond, Mercedes-Benz showcased a concept for a limo-sized autonomous car-that-could-be, featuring an open pod and swiveling seats, so passengers can gab while the car takes car of the pesky driving matters.  

Audi sent a tricked-out version of its A7 from the Bay Area to Vegas (a trip of almost 600 miles). The sedan, with a few journalists as passengers, drove itself - in what the company calls "piloted mode" - to Vegas without incident, at speeds of up to 70 mph.  The Audi uses a system of long and mid-range radar sensors, laser scanners and cameras to react to the world around it.

BMW is taking a slightly more conservative approach.  It demonstrated an "active collision avoidance system" on its i3 electric car, and invited journalists to try and crash into something. The firm behind The Ultimate Driving Machine is betting its customers want to keep their hands on the wheel.  Moritz Werling, BMW's lead engineer told reporters, "we think people will still love to drive BMW's themselves." 

American and Japanese carmakers are also pursuing autonomy for their vehicles, but the Germans seem to be the most taken by the concept.  VW is investing the most effort in its popular Golf model, and demonstrated a system that allows a driver to use hand gestures to do things like open the sunroof or adjust the seat position.

Before cars are available that offer drivers the chance to snooze behind the wheel (or imbibe in a potent potable) they'll probably feature limited autonomous capabilities.  A big one is self-parking.  BMW envisions a smart watch.  A user utters a phrase - BMW suggested the rather crude, "Go park yourself" - and the car spins away, looking for a nearby space to settle into.

While it's clear that automobiles will continue to employ more and more driver assist features, there's a lot of work to be done before they can fully drive themselves.  Interestingly, some see the technological hurdles as far less daunting than the legal and social ones.  Who's responsible when your autonomous car runs into mine?  And how many drivers will simply refuse to turn over control to a machine?

Still, there's big money on the table, betting that consumers will release their grip on the wheel. And in a world where many drivers text, scarf down burritos and apply eye liner while driving, a non-distracted self-driving car might be just the thing.

Susan Carpenter is auto and motorcycle critic for the OC Register, and appears every Thursday on The Wheel Thing.