It’s a late summer day, and I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of a BMW 3 Series at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Salinas, Calif. Sitting, not driving. When I lift my hands from the wheel at the beginning of this 2.2-mile course, the car accelerates to 75 mph almost instantly, pushing me and my passengers—BMW engineers and executives—into our leather seats. The car’s computer brain, using satellite signals to navigate the track, is in control.
“Wait until you see what’s coming up,” says Tom Kowaleski, a BMW spokesman, as we head for the Corkscrew, a steep, tight S-curve and the scene of numerous YouTube crash videos. We hit it at about 40 mph, and I have to sit on my hands to keep them from grabbing the wheel back from the machine. The executives chuckle.
This 3 Series is part of BMW’s ongoing efforts to improve the technology behind driverless vehicles and understand how computerized chauffeurs might be used in the real world. Similar projects are under way at General Motors (GM), Volkswagen (VLKAF), Google (GOOG), and at research labs around the world. While the current technology is good enough to navigate roadways and recognize obstacles, it needs some refinement before it’s street-safe, says Thilo Koslowski, an industry analyst with researcher Gartner (IT). The component costs also need to come down, he says. Still, there’s enough activity that governments are beginning to think about how to regulate the new smart vehicles. “In 10 years you will see the first kind of autonomous vehicles” on regular streets, says Koslowski. “The privilege of driving is going to be redefined.”