Autonomous driving—what the high-minded call artificial intelligence and what we call real brainlessness—may not be as vile as we originally feared. One DeLorean DMC-12 directed by a Stanford University engineering crew can perform perfect opposite-lock, tire-cooking, hands-off donuts at will for as long as the rubber lasts. Lead professor Chris Gerdes explained the rationale underlying this class project, timed to coincide with the fictional arrival on October 21, 2015, of the time-traveling Back to the Future DeLorean: “When we no longer have a human driver in the loop, we think that the automated vehicle should be able to harness the full range of vehicle operating capabilities to avoid collisions, even if this means going sideways a bit to stay on the road.” In other words, loading $60,000 worth of navigation gear, two powerful electric motors, and shrewd software into a 30-year-old sports car may have just fried Google’s autonomous eggs.
While on-demand drifting will likely remain in your dreams for the time being, cars programmed to perform other feats are now commonplace. Anti-lock brakes and stability control have been mandatory for years. Lots of cars sound an alarm, shake the seat, and/or nudge the steering wheel when you leave your lane without signaling. Adaptive cruise control that automatically maintains a safe distance from the car ahead is also widely available. Ten manufacturers recently committed to making automatic emergency braking standard across their entire lineups.
Brainless driving is closing in on us like a meteorite because of its potential to avoid accidents. Sadly, we are a nation of mediocre drivers, distracted on our daily journeys by dining, child rearing, makeup applying, and incessant texting. Driver’s ed. is a shadow of its former self, and few of us are able to use the accident-avoidance capabilities built into every new car. Our driving errors cause crashes, injuries, and fatalities.
To gauge progress on the path to brainlessness, we’ve gathered the four luxury cars that have done the most to purge human frailties from the acts of cruising, braking, and steering.
As usual, our test regimen is a balanced mix of on-road evaluations and proving- grounds tests. Other than noting which car can and which can’t steer you snugly against a curb, we skipped automatic-parking maneuvers. All these cars and many others on the market keep watchful eyes on your blind spots, a second form of artificial intelligence we’re taking for granted here. To verify that adaptive cruise control works to maintain a safe interval between your car and the one immediately ahead when an intruder barges into your lane, we used a foam-filled Volkswagen Golf decoy owned by Bosch to supplement our over-the-road observations. Our main focus was automatic lane keeping: how well these four early semi-autonomous cars guide you safely and securely while relying on their electronic wits instead of the driver’s hands, eyes, and judgment. Using a 50-mile mix of freeway stretches, rural two-lanes, and city streets, we tabulated exactly how many guidance interruptions were caused by broken lane marks, inconsistent pavement patches, intersections, and exit and entrance ramps. We also noted when a car lost the lane-keeping sense for no apparent reason. Then we ranked the four contenders according to the number of control lapses each test car experienced.
So cinch up nice and tight, because there’s going to be a lot of near misses.