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Is there a self-driving car in your future?

Ahead of CES 2013, hype about self-driving cars from Audi and Lexus grew. But this supposed trend did not actually materialize as advertised.

Lexus research vehicle
Lexus showed off its research vehicle, designed to test advanced safety systems, at CES 2013.
Josh Miller/CNET

LAS VEGAS--As hints leaked that both Lexus and Audi would be showing autonomous cars at CES 2013, no less a publication than the Wall Street Journalhyped the story. However, those expecting to see cars driving themselves around the Las Vegas Convention Center were disappointed. This trend had no gas.

Lexus burst the bubble with a surprisingly short press conference. The company brought two of its LS sedans on stage, one of them fitted with sensors and processors to research advanced safety features. Lexus vice president Mark Templin described the company's research as focused on safety, which could be taken as a reaction to Toyota's troubles from a few years ago over unintended acceleration issues.

Templin described the active safety features, which rely on radar, camera, and infrared sensors on the production LS, but could not go into detail as to what was built into the research vehicle, or even its capabilities. He said that Toyota was carrying out this active safety research at the Toyota Research Institute of North America in Michigan, but did not talk of self-driving cars being used for convenience.

In a follow-up interview, Toyota Corporate Manager of Advanced Technology Jim Pisz noted that the company demonstrated a self-driving Prius last year in Japan, which parked itself after dropping off its passengers. Pisz said that Toyota's research in Japan focuses on the car communicating with infrastructure so, for example, it would know when a traffic light was about to turn red. Research in the U.S., with the Lexus vehicle on stage, focuses on onboard sensor systems, which will provide driver assistance regardless of the infrastructure.

Audi's ambitious view

Ricky Hudi
Audi executive Ricky Hudi holds up a laser sensor array that could enable self-driving cars. Josh Miller/CNET

The very next day, Audi held a press conference in which Audi Chief Executive of Electronics Ricky Hudi described a much more ambitious plan. This press conference had much less showmanship than Lexus', with no cars on stage, but there was much more substance. Audi executives laid out five tech foci: Connectivity, Human-Machine Interface, Infotainment, Lighting Technology, and Driver Assistance. Current Audi vehicles demonstrate innovations in each of these areas.

In the context of Driver Assistance, Hudi talked about Piloted Driving, Audi's phrase for self-driving cars. He described Audi's vision as "When I don't want to drive, I allow myself to be driven", citing instances such as traffic jams or parking, where a driver might want to turn control over to the car and do something else. As a real-world example, he cited commercial aircraft, where pilots rely on autopilot systems, yet retain full responsibility for how the plane is flown.

The presentation become really intriguing when Hudi showed off a prototype laser sensor array, a component he could hold in the palm of his hand, which accomplished the same function as the big whirling arrays seen mounted on top of Google's fleet of autonomous cars. Noting that Audi obtained a license from the state of Nevada to test self-driving cars on its roads, he went on to predict that we could have these vehicles in this decade.

These companies presented wildly differing estimations on the production of self-driving cars, but they were not out of character for each automaker. Audi has demonstrated an incredible level of innovation of late, such as incorporating a dedicated data connection into its cars to power destination search and Google Earth navigation. It has been no less involved in deploying driver assistance features, such as adaptive cruise control.

Toyota, and its Lexus brand, have often displayed a more conservative nature, such as holding to a five-year product cycle for vehicles, even as many other automakers speed up. Many technologies deployed by Toyota have already been in play from other automakers. However, one of Toyota's biggest, risky innovations, the hybrid drivetrain, proved hugely successful.

We have the technology
However it appeared at CES 2013, the truth is that self-driving cars are, technologically, within reach. Almost every new car uses drive-by-wire technology, which can or already is controlled by computer. Google has successfully demonstrated sensors, processors, and software to safely drive cars in a variety of different conditions. And Audi showed how the sensor technology can be made to fit in a production vehicle without appearing to be some bizarre alien device mounted on a roof rack.

Mercedes-Benz, which did not come to CES 2013, has already promised a self-driving system for the near future that's designed to work in slow-moving traffic. Cadillac already named its self-driving technology SuperCruise. Ford did not mention self-driving cars during its press conference, but its new Fusion offers adaptive cruise control, which can bring the car to a full stop, and a lane-keeping system that steers the car back into its lane if a driver lets it drift. And Ford's automatic parallel parking works seamlessly. These all represent significant steps to a self-driving car.

The major hurdle in the U.S will involve liability issues, which will require legislation and public trust. Continued testing will likely solve the liability issue. As the technology proves reliable and safer than human drivers, insurance companies may push the issue through legislation, as it would lessen their payouts.

During Audi's press conference, Wolfgang Durheimer, Board Member for Technical Development, said that he expects self-driving cars to come to production soonest in Japan, Toyota's own turf, where it could make piloting the hugely congested streets of Tokyo safer, and let drivers be more productive while sitting in their cars.

Audi Piloted Driving
In a simulator on the CES 2013 show floor, Audi demonstrated its Piloted Driving concept. Wayne Cunningham/CNET