This month I got my first glimpse of a revolution that will change the car business.
As I drove along a straight stretch of autobahn near Frankfurt in a Mercedes-Benz E-class test car, going about 62 mph, I pulled back the cruise control lever and removed my hands from the steering wheel and foot from the accelerator. The car stayed in the center of the lane.
The real fun began when I came to a curve. Although I was ready to grab the wheel in a nanosecond, there was no need. The car negotiated the bend with no help from me.
The E class was equipped with the latest driver-assistance and safety innovations from Continental Automotive Systems of Frankfurt.
Cameras fitted on the car viewed the road ahead. Using the pictures, computers used an algorithm to calculate exactly where the car should be in the lane.
When it came time to leave the autobahn, I gripped the steering wheel but kept my feet off the gas and brake pedals. Following the car ahead, my car stopped at a traffic light. When the light changed, the car ahead moved, and so did I, without touching the pedals. Amazing.
Back at Continental's test track, I got behind the wheel of an Audi A3 and tried a parking maneuver. Sensors aboard the car measured a parking space.
Again, I took my hands off the wheel, put the car in reverse and gently touched the accelerator with my foot. The car steered itself into the parking space.
I drove other cars, each with a different system. One warned me of an impending crash, tightened my seat belt and guided my foot on the brake to avoid a collision.
Other major suppliers and carmakers also showed similar systems at the Frankfurt auto show this month.
All claim they want to assist drivers by making cars safer and easier to drive but leaving the driver in charge. Many of these technologies are arriving in vehicles such as the new Mercedes S class.
Phil Headley, chief engineer of Continental Automotive Systems in North America, said well-publicized electronics glitches have shown that the industry needs to be careful how it introduces its latest creations.
"The only worry I have is that a system will get into the market before it's ready," Headley said. "That would leave a bad taste in everybody's mouth."
But there's a bigger issue. The systems I tested have the potential to forever change the relationship between the driver and the automobile.
A vehicle that is capable of driving itself has enormous potential legal and societal implications that not even the smartest automotive engineer can foresee.
You may e-mail Bradford Wernle at