SAN FRANCISCO -- The self-driving car is moving from research lab to product plan, with a wave of advanced features due to hit the market by 2020, automakers and suppliers say.
Automakers such as Mercedes-Benz and Nissan Motor Corp. have made big promises about autonomous driving since 2010, when Google Inc. surprised the world by revealing it was developing vehicles that use sensors and software to drive themselves. Skeptics wondered whether it was a pie-in-the-sky dream.
But an announcement last week from Nissan and remarks from industry executives at the Automated Vehicles Symposium here suggest the calendar for self-driving technology is taking shape.
"Our milestones are coming from our customers," said Steffen Linkenbach, director of engineering systems and technology for North America at supplier Continental AG. "Everybody is asking us to be ready to introduce this technology in 2020, so it's clear that this technology will be on our road map for this time frame."
Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn announced that the company will offer traffic-jam assist and an automatic parking system by the end of 2016, followed by an automatic lane changing feature in 2018. Then, by 2020, the company plans to offer a more advanced system that can navigate city streets without relying on the driver.
Mercedes, which launched traffic-jam assist in the 2014 S class, may soon have news to share. Ralf Herrtwich, who leads the self-driving-car program for parent company Daimler AG, said at the symposium that the company is targeting car buyers and users of car-sharing services, such as Daimler-owned Car2go.
He said Daimler AG chief Dieter Zetsche would have more to say about the next steps "in the not-too-distant future."
Continental has received a wave of orders for models with traffic-jam assist that will go on sale in 2016, Linkenbach said. A second wave will follow in 2020, in the form of a highway-only autopilot system that takes control of the steering wheel and the pedals.
General Motors has said it will offer such a feature by 2020, and call it Super Cruise.
The third wave, arriving in 2025, will be a full automation system that travels from point A to point B under computer control.
The challenge is selling a system at a reasonable price. Continental's market research shows American car buyers expect to pay $1,100 for a system that can navigate in traffic jams, $1,500 for a car that can take the wheel on the highway and $1,200 for one that can park itself in a garage.
Today's sensor systems can cost several times that.
The automated cruise control expected in 2020 will rely heavily on high-definition maps, so that onboard sensors can have confidence in their surroundings.
This has prompted a big mapping push by Nokia HERE, which has a 90 percent market share for embedded automotive maps. With a fleet of 300 cars, many of them equipped with 360-degree cameras and lidar sensors, the company is building a map database for autonomous cars, said Ogi Redzic, its vice president of connected driving.
Many of the maps cover roads around auto manufacturers' test centers and laboratories. But last year, when Mercedes had an S class drive autonomously on a roughly 60-mile route to showcase its technology, it relied on maps that Nokia HERE built.
Redzic said that by 2018 or so, Nokia HERE plans to have built a high-definition map database for highways in the United States and Europe.
"We're going to map the countries where the first rollouts are going to happen," he said.
"You really have to launch at limited scale and then learn a little bit." c