I'm behind the wheel of a 2013 BMW 5 Series hurtling straight at a wall. At the last second I crank the wheel, desperately trying to avoid the obstacle. But in one agonizing microsecond I realize I haven't turned the wheel enough and I'm going to pile right into the damn thing. And that's when it happens.
It's as if an invisible hand, connected to someone much calmer than me, reaches over my shoulder and gently turns the steering wheel just enough to avoid the wall. Once I clear the wall, the invisible hand steers me back into my lane. I continue on my merry way with a pounding heart and an overwhelming sense of relief.
Now for full disclosure. The wall was actually a harmless inflatable wall on a test track in Orange County, California. Continental Corporation, which designed the "emergency steer assist" system that just thwarted my collision with the wall, arranged this demonstration to showcase its developing safety technology.
The Eye That Never Blinks
Self-steering systems, such as this one developed by Continental, are one of the main safety building blocks that will make self-driving cars possible in the near future. The systems steer using a combination of cameras that watch road markings and radar and laser sensors that track other objects. Onboard computers can figure how much to turn the wheel and send the instructions to the electronic steering system.
This self-steering technology sounds futuristic, but it's already here. Ford's Lane Keeping System, available on the 2013 Lincoln MKS and MKT, turns the steering wheel to automatically keep the car in the correct lane. Cadillac will be introducing a "super cruise control" system that will allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel by combining lane centering with adaptive cruise control.
A Close Scrape on a Busy Freeway
Steering is, of course, only one component of self-driving cars. Speed regulation and braking are other components in the march toward autonomous cars, and a technology that's now widely available from such carmakers as Acura, Infiniti, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo. In fact, I first tried adaptive cruise control in a Mercedes-Benz E500 driving through the Swiss Alps nearly eight years ago. As I drove, heart monitors and tension sensors strapped to my body showed that adaptive cruise control can cut driver fatigue on long trips.
To test the current state of adaptive cruise control, I grab the keys to Edmunds' 2013 Cadillac ATS long-term test car that has the carmaker's Driver Assistance package, which consists of adaptive cruise, side blind-zone alert, rear cross-traffic alert, front and rear automatic braking and automatic collision preparation.
On the busy 405 freeway in West Los Angeles, in the early afternoon, traffic is heavy but still moving. Using steering-wheel-mounted controls, I set the adaptive cruise control to 70 mph. However, the cars around me are only going about 55 mph. The radar sensors monitor the car in front of me and match its speed.
Suddenly, as so often happens in Los Angeles, another car swerves into the gap in front of me, practically grazing my front bumper. Before I can react, I feel the car's brakes slowing the Cadillac. Again, I get that eerie sense of an unseen driver looking over my shoulder and protecting me. The car slows and soon there is a comfortable gap between my car and the intruder. When the driver in front pulls out of my lane, my speed builds again until I reach the 70 mph adaptive cruise control setting.
A Bigger Picture of the Road
On my test-drive I decide to try to photograph the instrument panel. The only problem is I'm going 70 mph and my camera is in a bag on the passenger seat. I imagine that many people would simply begin groping for the camera while keeping part of their vision on the road. And then it occurs to me. This is exactly where this type of technology helps. The adaptive cruise and braking systems won't let a partially distracted driver run into the car in front, and Cadillac's lane departure warning system will tell the driver if he or she wanders across the dotted line.
Reflecting on this, I realize that for my entire driving life, I have all too often been staring at the bumper of the car in front of me. But with adaptive cruise control, the radar is watching traffic immediately ahead so I can broaden my view of the road. Eventually, I could retrain myself to be a more complete driver, looking at the big picture.
But What About Braking?
Later in the test-drive, I try out the system's ability to bring the car to a complete stop. I see brake lights ahead as traffic comes to a standstill. I hover my foot over the brake pedal and wait to see what happens next. The active emergency braking system, which works with adaptive cruise control, senses the stationary traffic ahead and begins braking. Will it really stop in time? I know that the owner's manual says it will. But after years of conditioning, it's all I can do to keep my foot off the brake. Sure enough, the Cadillac ATS smoothly brakes to a complete stop without any help from me.
It's then that I have a strange realization: The car drives a lot like me. It maintains a comfortable distance from the car ahead, smoothly accelerates and brakes gradually. I guess that self-driving cars are another form of downsizing; my skills as a driver are no longer required.
A Feast for Lawyers
After the test-drive is over, I nurse my sense of rejection and return to the owner's manual to review the section that describes the different self-driving systems. One thing strikes me right away: The automaker's lawyers had a field day. Each system has many more disclaimers than the usual legal boilerplate. And there are many warnings for situations when the systems might not work.
Clearly, engineers are trying hard to anticipate every situation where these self-driving systems won't work. It seems impossible to anticipate every possible situation that could occur. On curving roads, for example, the manual says the radar might track cars in other lanes. Lane markings might be inadequate for detection by the cameras or the radar might not see cars ahead in hilly terrain, the manual says. And of course, snow and ice can cover the camera lenses, rendering them inoperable.
While carmakers continue to make technological improvements, it's up to the lawyers to craft language that will keep them safe from class-action lawsuits. More important, it's up to drivers to continue to drive. And that means monitoring the road ahead with just as much diligence as ever. While I'm looking forward to self-driving car technology, it's also good to know that self-driving cars haven't given me a pink slip — yet.
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