By AARON M. KESSLER
(these images did not run with the original article, but had always captured my imagination since i first saw this transportation vehicle back in 1973 driving Miles Monroe around in the future.)
DETROIT — Google’s driverless car may still be a work in progress, but the potential for semiautonomous vehicles on American roads is no longer the stuff of science fiction.
By the end of the decade, a growing number of automakers aim to offer some form of hands-off-the-wheel, feet-off-the-pedals highway driving where a driver can sit back and let the car take control.
The very nature of driving, experts say, will be radically reshaped — and the biggest players in the auto industry are now vying to capture a slice of the revolutionary market they see coming within a matter of years.
“This is the year we’ll look back on as the turning point,” said Scott Belcher, president of the nonprofit Intelligent Transportation Society of America, who has helped organize a global connected car expo for seven years. “We’re at the cusp now of this completely new generation of transportation, and it’s going to change things on a scale not seen since Eisenhower and the Interstate Highway System.”
The potential goes beyond just the idea of a souped-up cruise control. The connected car of 2020 will zip down the highway, pass other vehicles and possibly even take the next off-ramp, all on its own.
It will warn drivers of daily dangers like pedestrians or bicyclists suddenly crossing traffic, and if drivers don’t react in time, the car could take over — hitting the brakes or steering away before it is too late.
It will monitor drivers’ eyes and how often they close, to jolt them awake if they fall asleep at the wheel. And parking? Forget about hunting around the parking garage at the mall: Cars will go off and find a spot, then return later, all on their own.
Vehicles available to most Americans will soon use a combination of sensors in the car and communication between cars to transform the traditional driving experience.
The pivot point is the buy-in from auto companies and their vast networks of suppliers, which now not only believe in the technology but also see it as a way to gain a competitive advantage.
“They now see it as real, and they want to get ahead of each other,” Mr. Belcher said.
A report released on Monday by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company projected that the revenue associated with connected-car technology will grow to more than $230 billion by the end of the decade, about a sixfold increase from current levels. Active safety features like emergency braking and other semiautonomous driving capabilities are expected to capture the largest share of that revenue.
But while the market for connected cars is set to grow substantially in the coming years, McKinsey also raised a caution flag to auto industry companies that may expect a complete windfall from the technologies.
It predicts that connectivity features will have a much larger share of the revenue pie by 2020 but that the total pie itself may be unlikely to significantly expand. In other words, the growth of smart cars could set off “significant redistribution of revenues” between automakers and other industry companies, according to the report.
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“The connected-car battle is emerging to be more about capturing shifting revenue and profit pools, rather than expanding and capturing new” ones, the report predicted.
G.M. made a splash last month by announcing that its Super Cruise technology — the company’s version of autonomous highway driving — will be available in two years on certain Cadillac models. Other automakers, including Honda, BMW and Volkswagen, are also planning hands-off-the-wheel offerings within the next five years.
And with roughly 33,000 traffic fatalities every year in the United States, the potential for saving many of those lives through technology is finally within grasp, automakers and safety regulators say.
Gerald J. Witt, with the auto supplier Delphi, said the company was working on sophisticated driver monitoring that by 2016 could be ready for production vehicles. The system would know if a driver was being distracted or falling asleep at the wheel. The goal is to eventually tap into other aspects of the connected car, like the Internet connection, not only to warn drivers but also to offer timely suggestions.
“If your eyelids are closing at a rate that shows you’re seriously fatigued, we could see the car say: ‘Hey, it looks like you’re tired; there’s a Starbucks up ahead in one mile. Want some coffee?’ ” Mr. Witt said.
Even relatively mundane activities like parking a car may soon be automated. While companies like Ford and Volkswagen offer vehicles that can steer themselves into a parking spot, the French supplier that makes those systems, Valeo, has even greater ambitions. It wants to eliminate hunting around the parking lot or garage for a space.
In a recent demonstration here in Detroit, Valeo showed what the parking lot of the future might look like: essentially, driverless valet parking.
Once the driver got out of an equipped sport utility vehicle, sensors communicated with systems that monitored each parking space. After the push of a button on a smartphone, the car drove away and headed to an available spot, parking itself.
Later on, when a driver is ready to depart, the car is called back with the smartphone: It starts, finds its way out of the parking spot and meets the driver at the entrance.
“When you think of all the time you spend looking for a place to park, this could free you up to get all that time back,” said Amine Taleb-Bendiab, project manager for Valeo’s Advanced Driving Assistance Systems.
Mr. Taleb-Bendiab said a surprising number of collisions happen within parking garages, and parking areas at places like the mall, airport or apartment buildings, when people sometimes let their guard down or become distracted. In theory, such automated systems could eliminate most if not all of those crashes.
On the opposite end of the miles-per-hour spectrum, Honda demonstrated a high-speed ride on Detroit’s public highways to highlight its advances in automated driving technology. The vehicle steered through the curves, merged into traffic and even took an exit off the highway — all while the test driver’s hands sat on his lap.
IAV Automotive Engineering, based in Germany, is aiming to offer a semidriverless system that can be added to any production car, regardless of the manufacturer. The company, partly owned by Volkswagen and the supplier Continental, demonstrated the capabilities on a VW test vehicle as it drove on its own, using a system of cameras, lasers and radar.
G.M.’s Super Cruise mode is anticipated to work in a similar manner. A G.M. spokesman, Daniel Flores, says that at this point the feature is designed to keep a vehicle at speed and in its lane but that the driver will have to take the wheel to change lanes.
Most semiautomated driving will initially be confined to the highway. That is because while the speeds are higher, the environment is much more predictable than city streets: All the vehicles are going in the same direction, and there is no cross traffic.
And while such driving may soon become much more about machine intelligence, the automated cars of 2020 will still need that human element to handle the unpredictable.
“The driver needs to stay engaged in case they need to take over; it’s not like you can fall asleep or go sit in the back seat,” Mr. Flores said. “But it will certainly allow for greater comfort and relaxation.”