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Driverless cars: Tesla, Google, Nissan and others shift gears

<p>How much power do Google and major automakers plan to give self-driving vehicles?</p>

Imagine a day when getting to work is a matter of telling your car where to go and sitting back to do other things, like watch a movie, hold a video conference or surf the web. That day is coming.

Plenty of cars already use sensors, microcontrollers, GPS, radar and cameras to do semi-autonomous things such as keep themselves within a lane and assist drivers from crashing into things.

The self-driving car also holds great promise when it comes to sustainability. It can figure out the most direct, least traffic-jammed route and drive without quickly accelerating or braking too hard -- all of which save on fuel consumption. And if someday cars and the road infrastructure are so advanced that accidents no longer happen, car makers could manufacture vehicles with fewer and lighter components, meaning better fuel economy and less material eventually ending up in the waste stream.

There's also the notion of a burgeoning shared economy, in which people share things instead of having to buy them. Imagine, for example, using an app on your smartphone to summon an autonomous vehicle owned by someone else that you only pay for according to how much you use it.

There's the safety element to consider, as well. While some people find the prospect of handing over control of the steering wheel, brakes and throttle to a computer frightening, the reality is that people often don't drive well. Computers, on the other hand, never get sleepy, don't suffer from road rage and can't drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs. And if they text and drive -- which some vehicles already can -- they can do it while remaining fully concentrated on the road.

Here are five companies working on bringing self-driving cars to fruition.

1. Google

The Mountain View, Calif.-based search and advertising giant has been working on driverless cars for years, and in 2005 a team of its engineers working in partnership with Stanford University won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, an autonomous vehicle competition funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Since then, Nevada, Florida and California have passed laws that permit testing of autonomous cars on public roads, and self-driving Google cars have logged hundreds of thousands of miles on U.S. roadways.

Here's fascinating video of a Google driverless car in action.

2. Tesla

While Google has proved driverless cars are possible, most experts have pegged the end of the decade as when you'll actually be able to buy one. However, Elon Musk, chairman and CEO of Tesla, told Financial Times in September that cars capable of taking over 90 percent of the driving from someone behind the wheel will be road-ready within three years.

"My opinion is it's a bridge too far to go to fully autonomous cars," he said. "It's incredibly hard to get the last few percent."

Musk said Tesla's plan is to let drivers turn on a kind of autopilot that would work most of the time but require driver input for certain situations.

3. Nissan

Nissan is one automaker that leads the pack when it comes to its commitment to self-driving cars. The company recently announced it would offer them by 2020 and has demonstrated a Leaf electric car that used laser guidance systems, radar sensors and cameras to drive itself around a track littered with various obstacles. "Our systems work at speeds from finding an open space in a parking lot up to passing other vehicles at highway speed," a company spokesperson told me in an email.

To commemorate this goal, the Japanese government issued the company a special license plate that reads "20-20" and gave the company the go-ahead to test autonomous vehicle technologies on the country's roadways.

4. General Motors

GM is working on autonomous features as part of an option package called Super Cruise, which will be offered on a Cadillac later this decade, a spokesperson told me. It lets a driver take his hands off the wheel at highway speeds and avoids colliding with other vehicles by combining adaptive cruise control and lane centering by employing radar, GPS and infrared optical cameras.

The Detroit car maker is also thinking about how to attack the problem of dirty, overcrowded cities with its EN-V, which stands for Electric Networked Vehicle, a concept electric vehicle that gives off zero-emissions and someday might be able to communicate with other vehicles and city infrastructure while letting inhabitants do things such as conduct video calls with an on-board camera or watch TV shows and movies projected in front of them.

In the below video, GM says the EN-V has the potential to be life-changing for people who currently don't have mobility because they're too old, too young or too poor.

5. Ford

Not every automaker is pursuing fully autonomous cars, at least at this point, although most are integrating some kinds of self-driving features into their vehicles. If reading a book or Skyping with someone aren't things you ever hope to do while behind the wheel, you might at least appreciate an upcoming technology Ford is working on that will not only find a parking space but steer the car into it, as well.

In this video you can see a car drive past a row of spaces in a parking ramp. After passing an open space, the vehicle stops, puts itself into reverse and backs into the spot. The driver can be inside or outside the vehicle while the car parks itself.

The future of driving

Nearly every automaker is working on some kind of autonomous technology, some like Nissan aiming for fully self-driving cars, others expecting drivers to be engaged with the road for a long time into the future.

"By 2018, you should be able to drive on the highway and the car will handle steering, speed and lane control," Raj Rajkumar, professor of electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, recently told CNBC, "By 2020, your car will do lane changes and we'll see more features to handle stop-and-go traffic in urban areas. Ten years from now, cars will be communicating with street lights and other vehicles to help with traffic flow."

Google self-driving car image via Google

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