What's the real benefit of driverless cars?

Driverless cars are the auto industry's equivalent of an Armani suit: They give any company a touch of class.

A small fleet of driverless cars -- displayed by BMW, Audi, Ford and others -- was displayed this month at the International CES, along with a self-parking vehicle designed by Valeo.

At the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, for example, a hands-free BMW 2-series coupe maintained control during a series of power slides across a water-slicked track. And BMW plans to navigate a fleet of driverless cars next year on a 500-kilometer, or 311-mile, route from Germany over the Alps to Italy.

This is heady stuff, no doubt. But I can't shake the feeling that some of us are missing the real point of driverless cars.

The true benefit of hands-free cars is the anti-collision systems that have been developed for them. In conventional vehicles, these tools can keep fatigued or distracted motorists out of trouble.

Automakers are introducing traffic-jam assist, low-speed collision avoidance, lane-keeping systems and other useful systems. And if fully autonomous cars never enter the showroom, that's OK.

Audi, BMW and Mercedes are locked in a "Can you top this?" race to introduce vehicles that could navigate hands-free from your home to your final destination. But other automakers appear to understand that the real goal of this technology is to make conventional vehicles safer.

Consider Ford's self-driving prototype, a modified Fusion sedan unveiled on Dec. 12 at a press briefing in Dearborn, Mich. The car's roof was festooned with four lidars, whirring canisters that gave the vehicle a 360-degree view of the world around it.

At that event, Ford projected the lidars' view of the room on a curtain behind the car. It was slick. But then a Ford executive let the air out of the balloon.

"We see this as a driver asset, not as a driver replacement," said Randy Visintainer, Ford's director of research and innovation.

Say what? You mean I won't be able to buy a Ford Fusion 10 years from now and do The New York Times crossword while my car transports me from door to door? Well, no. Visintainer refused to say when, if ever, a driverless vehicle would be ready for the public.

He refused to get sucked into a bragging contest with Daimler and Nissan, which have promised to have production-ready driverless cars by 2020. And rightly so.

Visintainer isn't the only auto executive who views hands-free vehicles this way. At the Tokyo auto show, a Toyota executive told Automotive News Europe that his company believed the driver should remain the decision-maker in the car.

"Think about airplanes," said Moritaka Yoshida, Toyota's managing officer for vehicle control systems. "They have an autopilot, but when it comes to important operations, the pilot will always take over and the system will support the pilot's maneuvers."

Exactly. Think of driverless cars as the auto industry's version of the Apollo space mission. Yes, we put astronauts on the moon. But the real benefit came from the computers that were developed to make that mission possible.

Sometimes the tools are more important than the final goal. That was true for Apollo, and it's equally true for driverless cars.

You can reach David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com



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