Nine days after leaving San Francisco, a blue car packed with tech from a company you’ve probably never heard of rolled into New York City after crossing 15 states and 3,400 miles to make history. The car did 99 percent of the driving on its own, yielding to the carbon-based life form behind the wheel only when it was time to leave the highway and hit city streets.
This amazing feat, by the automotive supplier Delphi, underscores the great leaps this technology has taken in recent years, and just how close it is to becoming a part of our lives. Yes, many regulatory and legislative questions must be answered, and it remains to be seen whether consumers are ready to cede control of their cars, but the hardware is, without doubt, up to the task.
The speed with which the technology has reached this point is stunning. Just 11 years ago at the 2004 Darpa Grand Challenge, the most advanced autonomous vehicles of the day attempted to complete a 150-mile course. The best any of them could do was 7.32 miles—and that vehicle got stuck and caught fire. The next year, five vehicles completed a 132-mile course, but took seven hours to do it.
Autonomous vehicles have made enormous strides since then, which is especially remarkable when you realize the auto industry typically spends five to seven years developing a new car.
Today, most of the world’s major automakers are working on autonomous technology, with Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and Volvo leading the pack. Google may be more advanced than anyone: The tech giant says its self-driving cars are so far along, they can recognize and respond to hand signals from a cop directing traffic.