"What we're seeing now is finally bringing together the technology and the sensor capability that now finally gives us the opportunity to bring autonomous driving to the average public down the road," said Andy Christensen with the Nissan Technical Center. "We're still talking a few years, but the vision is there. We can see what's coming."
By most accounts, 2020 seems to be the projected year to see self-driving cars at a dealership near you. We got our own hands-on, or rather, hands-off, demonstration of a self-driving Nissan Leaf. For safety reasons, an engineer was in the driver's seat.
At one point, our self-driving car overtook another car that was going slower. The demo put us on an imaginary freeway. The car even saw the speed limit sign. On-board cameras read the sign and the car adjusted its speed accordingly.
And yes, it can also read traffic lights. Essentially, every aspect of real driving is taken into account.
"As the ebbs and flows of traffic happen, the computer will know that and be able to follow much better than simply reacting to what's happening," said Christensen.
Cruising down the road, the car even sensed a pedestrian, swiftly braked and then steered around it.
How does it do all this? Some of the things that make autonomous cars possible are already in production cars today: satellite navigation, radar guided cruise control, even self-parking systems and systems to keep you in your lane. Add in some extra computing power and a little more technology, and you have an autonomous car.
And if there's an emergency, like the driver experiences a heart attack, hitting the SOS button initiates the car to pull over, stop and call 911.
But even if you have no intention of handing over control on the road, you'll likely find some aspects of autonomous cars very appealing, like self-parking - not with you in the car, but all by itself.
Think about it dropping you off at the mall and then finding a space. It'll even come back and pick you up when you're ready. It's valet without the gratuity.
Still, convincing people to completely trust a car to do its own driving will be a challenge. But carmakers say they'll be ready.
"We feel the capability and the reliability of the sensors we have in the computers will be by far better than most of the human drivers out there today," said Christensen.
Other automakers working on self-driving cars have said they could have them ready by the end of the decade as well.