As has often been the case, a lot of the commercials aired during last Sunday’s Super Bowl offered entertainment as good as, or better than, the game itself (well, quite a few of them did, anyway).  One, in particular, caught my attention.  Hyundai’s ad titled “Dad’s Sixth Sense” offered a perfect set up for this week’s Trend Tuesday blog post on self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles.

In the commercial, we see a 2015 Hyundai Genesis stopping itself automatically when its Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) system detects a car suddenly backing out of a driveway into the street ahead.  Such systems are just one example of how cars are being designed to help us stay safe.  It’s worth noting that a number of high-end vehicles in recent years – Audi, BMW, Lexus, Volvo — have already been introduced with similar capabilities.  The commercial, however, does a wonderful job of demonstrating the human side of why these capabilities are so important and that they will begin appearing in less expensive vehicles.

The latest efforts involving autonomous vehicles, though, go far beyond collision avoidance systems like the one described above.  They focus instead on the capabilities required for a vehicle to completely drive itself with little or no assistance from a human driver.  Driverless pods already connect the car park to T5 at London-Heathrow airport.  Induct Technology has introduced its Navia self-driving shuttle for urban transportation.

Cars retrofitted by Google and a team at Stanford University have navigated their way — without drivers — not only along normal streets and highways but down the famous hairpin turns of San Francisco’s Lombard Street.  Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk told the Financial Times last September that the company is pursuing autopilot capabilities in its Model S by 2016.  Audi, BMW, Nissan, and Volvo, among others, have announced plans to launch autonomous models of their cars by 2020.

A variety of technologies are used in the development of autonomous vehicles.  They range from various long- and mid-range radar capabilities, various types of sensors, and global-positioning systems to cameras integrated with image recognition software.  Regardless of the technologies used, the intent of all of them is to continuously assess, and react automatically to, the conditions detected ahead, behind, and all around the vehicle with the purpose of getting the vehicle safely from point A to point B.

It’s likely that no readers of this post have looked at the car next to them and noticed that they had no driver.  It’s possible that they have, though, since a number of states in the U.S. have passed laws allowing the licensing of such vehicles for testing (I’m not aware that any similar licensing exists in the EU but would welcome comments if anyone has more current information).  The one accident that I’ve seen documented during actual testing on public roads, a crash occurred when a human driver seized control of the vehicle from the automated system!

Although a great deal of further development and testing lies ahead, the timelines are getting shorter.  In terms of our seeing streets and highways full of self-driving vehicles, estimates have dropped recently from 20-30 years to a consensus, among those most closely involved, in the 15-20 year range.  It will be a strange world indeed but, if it’s a safer one, the sooner the better.