GENEVA -- Autonomous driving features have become an industry obsession, judging by the buzz about them at Geneva's auto show.
For some executives, though, there's an uneasy memory of a few years ago, when electric vehicles had the buzz factor. Automakers can build self-driving vehicles today. But, as with EVs, real-world obstacles could significantly slow their introduction.
The sticking point -- as it was with EVs -- may be infrastructure. Automakers say that an autonomous vehicle needs to be connected to an external system that feeds it information about surrounding vehicles, traffic conditions, road work and the like.
Ulrich Hackenberg, Audi technical development chief, says autonomous driving technology requires rich data streams to help a driver pilot a vehicle, much less drive the vehicle itself.
"It's a very complex and intelligent system of decision-making that we are working on," Hackenberg said. "And if we are doing that, then we are able to go step by step more into autonomous driving."
Ford of Europe COO Barb Samardzich says that is why the web of information in which an autonomous vehicle would operate is crucial.
"You need an infrastructure that enables the cars not to just talk to each other, but to talk to what's going on around them -- traffic jams, any kind of work stoppages where you have road work," Samardzich said. "That infrastructure has to exist for fully autonomous vehicles to really take off. I see that as a much longer lead time than the OEMs having the technology to support it."
Autonomous driving efforts are likely to falter if there are only a few hubs with rich information systems, she says, just as EV adoption is limited by spotty distribution of charging systems.
"Even the wired connection for the vehicles to talk to each other, it can't just be in this city center hub," Samardzich said. "It has to be everywhere for you to utilize it. I think getting that infrastructure together is going to be what dictates the pace that autonomous vehicles can really drive towards."
But in the short term, automakers are pushing piecemeal introduction of new features that take over driving functions, at least temporarily. Leading the pack is Mercedes-Benz, which introduced a system to drive a car in stop-and-go congestion in the S class last year.
Such systems, which combine adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and crash avoidance systems that apply brakes, are in several other automakers' plans. Audi, for instance, will offer a similar system in its next-generation A8, Hackenberg said.
Hakan Samuelsson, CEO of Volvo Cars, said systems such as these show that much of the technology exists for self-guided vehicles.
"Everything is already there," Samuelsson said. "You are just putting it together. It will be an evolution."
Volvo sees autonomous driving as the next step in its traditional drive to improve vehicle safety. The company has set a goal that by 2020, no one will die in an accident while in a Volvo vehicle.
"These technologies are very crucial to coming up to this," Samuelsson said.
Not all automakers are enamored of autonomous driving, however.
Herbert Diess, BMW board member for r&d, says, "Our long-term target is not to get from one point to the other via autonomous driving. We are still committed to sheer driving pleasure."
Diess said that BMW sees the value of autonomous features for handling traffic jams, parking a vehicle or keeping a vehicle in its lane. A key difference: BMW's lane-keeping feature will notify the driver when a vehicle is drifting but not push it back into the lane as the Mercedes-Benz system does.
"The goal is to make sure that you can cope with these circumstances, that your vehicle works in a traffic jam and later in a parking garage," he said.
But, Diess added, "We want to drive the car ourselves after the traffic jam."
Diana T. Kurylko contributed to this report.
You can reach Dave Guilford at email@example.com