DETROIT - It's been more than half a century since some of the first concept cars boasting self-driving features were presented to the world and they're still not on the roads. But many auto executives say the industry is on the cusp of welcoming vehicles that make the idea of keeping both hands on the wheel an anachronism.
General Motors showed off "dream cars" in the late 1950s like the Firebird II and Cadillac Cyclone with features automakers are now starting to roll out in new models as the technology, based on sensors, lasers, radar systems, GPS, cameras and microchips -- improves and becomes less costly.
While most industry officials don't envision a fully self-driving, or autonomous, vehicle before 2025, features such as adaptive cruise control or traffic jam assist that automatically slow or apply the brakes for a car in certain situations are already being introduced. And much like anti-lock brakes became the norm after initial resistance, these new technologies will prepare drivers for a future where they are needed less.
"The whole concept of a car being able to drive itself is pretty profound," said Larry Burns, GM's former research and development chief and an adviser for Google's self-driving car project. "This is the most transformational play to hit the auto industry in 125 years."
The progress has been in the making for decades as GM's Firebird II, introduced in 1956, included a system to work with an electrical wire embedded in the highway to guide the car. Three years later, the rocket-like Cyclone boasted an autopilot system that steered the car and radar in front nose cones that warned of a collision and automatically applied the brakes.
However, the pace of invention has quickened, with such automakers as GM, Ford Motor Co, Toyota Motor Corp and Volkswagen AG developing technologies to help drivers avoid accidents. Some even envision a future where today's cars are more amusement.
"In the same way we all used to travel on horses and now horses are entertainment, you could imagine automobiles driven by people becoming more entertainment," said Chris Urmson, the Google programme's technical head.
In a world where Nevada and Florida have already passed laws allowing the licensing of self-driving cars, the rush is on to make the job easier for drivers. For many, the ultimate goal is to take the steering wheel totally out of consumers' hands and eliminate accidents altogether.
"Once we have a car that will never crash, why don't we let it drive?" said Nady Boules, GM's director of autonomous technology development.
However, Boules and executives like him will have to win over a public that includes those who love to drive or simply wouldn't trust their lives to a robot. Others, like long-haul truckers, could resist the technology for fear of job losses.