One day (soon, according to GM) it won't be weird to get in a car, go for a drive and see the driver take their hands off of the wheel while the car continues on self-guided. That day isn't today though, so while I've already had demos of "autonomous driving," hopping in this Acura TLX for a quick drive through Detroit was still special. So far I've only seen similar technology working in controlled environments, but this time the car was navigating its way down the same highways I drive on regularly, and dealing with real drivers just trying to go about their day. As it turns out, after three years in development, Honda's technology can handle merging into highway traffic better than some people I know.
That blurry spot on top of the Acura is part of the array of radar, sensors and cameras that tell the car where it is and what's going on around it. Blended with GPS data (including street information and the speed limit, etc.) the car is able to manage going on and off of the freeway, driving and even changing lanes or merging with traffic. Once we began to enter the highway (M-10, underneath the Cobo Center), Honda's system notified the driver it was ready to take over with an audio cue and a light on the dashboard, and when he pressed the button, it just kept driving on the planned route. The only truly weird thing -- as anyone who has driven this route would expect -- is that the car's system kept it going at the posted speed limit, as the usual downtown traffic whizzed by going quite a bit faster.
Other than the unusually low/legal speed for the area, the only other indications inside the car that anything was different are the screens displaying the accumulated sensor data. Honda's engineers said it can detect objects hundreds of meters directly in front of the car, and on the screens, it pointed out not only any traffic nearby, but also their predicted path for the next few seconds. Merging from M-10 onto I-94 proved tricky because of heavy traffic however, and with another audio cue it prompted the driver to take over again. Once he handled the merge, it drove along in slow-moving traffic, then signaled and exited onto I-96 as planned on its way back to the ITS World Conference 2014. If this were an Uber driver (and it might be, eventually), I'd probably give it five stars.
So far Honda hasn't have laid out a specific timeframe to launch this technology, although industry watchers expect to see various forms available by 2020. More testing is needed before this hits streets in your town, as well as answers to the legal/insurance questions about who is responsible when the car is doing the driving. It'll need to lose the roof rack filled with equipment, but the software proved surprisingly capable dealing with normal, every day traffic, and I could see the current implementation with its notifications for the driver working in a real-world environment.