Expect the race for robot cars to pick up speed in 2013



It’s unlikely that robot cars will become commercially available in 2013, but it’s a certainty that they will take big steps forward. So far, Google has been pushing forward with the development of self-driving vehicles, but the search company is not alone. Toyota is the latest to officially join the fray.

The Japanese car maker will be showing off its “active safety research vehicle, Intelligent Transport Systems and 2013 Lexus LS—equipped with the world’s most advanced pre-collision safety system”—at the Consumer Electronics Show this week. I’ll be checking it out and speaking with Toyota executives, so I’ll hopefully have more on this next week.

Robot cars for Google make a strange sort of sense. With the company counting on much of its future advertising to come from location-aware devices, having cars in its arsenal sort of works with that. Plus, it’s a great vanity project that makes the company look bold and innovative.

Autonomous vehicles for a major car manufacturer like Toyota, however, makes much more sense. If such cars are the future, Toyota and its ilk need to be there—preferably before Google, if they care about their business. Indeed, any manufacturer worth its salt is working on them (Nissan’s effort can apparently park itself.)

And the future they will be. Unlike electric vehicles, there won’t be much institutional resistance to robot cars, given the astronomical number of car deaths every year. The World Health Organization lists car-related death as one of the top 10 killers in the world, while far more people die of traffic fatalities in the United States than through gun violence. So there is a pressing need for safer vehicles.

Which is how they’ll be sold—car makers are sure to push their self-driving vehicles as safer than any others. With all of the major players now in a race (pardon the pun) to get these robots to market, they will indeed arrive faster than anyone expects. I first rode in one of these back in 2008, when GM executives predicted they’d be commonplace by 2018. Given the competition, it’s looking like it’s going to happen faster than that. Oh, and it’s not just happening in the United States—China is developing robot cars too.

How will they arrive? Well, they’re coming in bits and pieces, with some of them already here in the form of lane detection and proximity sensors. While no one expects a fully robotic car to become commercially available in 2013, it is entirely feasible that a vehicle that is almost entirely autonomous on the highway to start with will indeed be sold this year.

Nevada and California have already made test cars legal—it’s a safe bet Google or one of the other players will be pushing to extend those laws to non-test cars on highways this year.

Oh, one other prediction, which probably won’t happen this year, but is inevitable: the media (and public) will freak out the first time a robot car accidentally kills someone, with calls to slow development inevitably following. It’s similar to how plane crashes get major attention, despite the fact that thousands of largely-robotic planes don’t crash every day.