In the world of self-driving cars, all eyes are on Google. But major automakers are making moves toward autonomous driving, too. Although their advanced-safety and driver-assistance features may seem incremental in comparison, many are proofs of concept for technologies that could one day control driverless cars. At the same time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the arm of the Department of Transportation charged with establishing and enforcing car-safety standards and regulations, is studying and testing the road readiness of these control and machine-vision systems. In the short term, as buyers hold their breath for robotic cars, making automation features standard will save lives.


Forward Collision Avoidance
In January the NHTSA announced that it would begin to factor crash-preventing braking systems into its car-safety ratings. The systems use forward-facing sensors—which can be radar-, camera- or laser-based—to detect imminent collisions and either apply or increase braking force to compensate for slow or insufficient driver reactions. Honda was first to introduce such a system in 2003; since then, nearly every automaker has rolled out similar features on high- and mid-range models.

Backup Cameras
Every new car sold after May 1, 2018, must have a backup camera, per a safety regulation issued by the NHTSA in 2014. The rear-facing cameras, available now on dozens of models, provide drivers with a full rear field of view and help to detect obstacles in blind spots. The NHTSA estimates that improving visibility in this way could save 69 lives every year.

Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communication
For self-driving cars to navigate roads en masse, each must have the position, speed and trajectory of nearby automobiles. Last summer the NHTSA announced that it would explore how to standardize such vehicle-to-vehicle communication. The feature could improve coordination for human and machine alike during accident-prone maneuvers, such as left-hand turns.

Lane Detection
In 2013 the NHTSA established how to test the effectiveness of camera systems that watch existing painted lane markers and alert drivers if they drift. Some cars, such as the Toyota Prius, now even take over steering if a driver does not respond quickly enough to warning signals. And new 2015 models from Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen go further, using cameras and sensors to monitor surroundings and autonomously steer, change lanes and swerve to avoid accidents.