But a lot of autonomous-driving features have quietly slipped onto our public roadways, right under our noses.
A few months ago Yahoo Autos invited me to be a judge for its Ride of the Year competition (I am the anchor columnist for Yahoo Tech). We wound up testing 22 new car models.
My role, of course, was to judge the technology available in these cars. What I discovered was that self-driving features are primarily available as an expensive option on already-expensive cars. Nevertheless, there really is a lot more self-driving tech available today than most people probably realize.
Here are the kinds of autonomous features that you can already buy today:
Auto stop and go: Volvo, Mercedes and other companies now offer something like cruise control that goes all the way down to zero miles per hour. That is, a car can drive itself forward when you’re inching along in stop-and-go traffic—and then accelerate again when the lane ahead is clear. It’s cruise control for traffic jams. It works flawlessly.
Lane assist: High-end cars can now stay in the lane for you. If you start to drift, the car beeps at you, vibrates the steering wheel or corrects the steering automatically. I discovered that this feature isn’t fully baked. If the car loses sight of the white line, it can float right across it. You still have to remain vigilant.
Parking assist: With one button press, this feature kicks in to semiautomatically parallel park (or head-in park). A message on the screen tells you when to drive forward and backward slowly; the car handles the steering for you. This feature, too, needs a lot of refinement. In my tests, cars like the Chevy Malibu and Camaro often failed to complete the parking job, and very few cars could park perfectly every time.
Collision alerts: Most of these primo cars can beep and flash when you’re about to hit a car ahead of you, change lanes when there’s a car in your blind spot, drift out of your lane or hit someone as you’re backing up. These features are fantastic. They work well and are definitely worth having.
The bottom line is that some self-driving features are true blessings, and others are so unfinished that you have to pay just as much attention to driving as you do without them. Someday, we’ll be able to take a nap, check some e-mail or send some texts while our cars drive themselves—but we’re not there yet.