A silver BMW 5 Series is weaving through traffic at roughly 120 kilometers per hour (75 mph) on a freeway that cuts northeast through Bavaria between Munich and Ingolstadt. I’m in the driver’s seat, watching cars and trucks pass by, but I haven’t touched the steering wheel, the brake, or the gas pedal for at least 10 minutes. The BMW approaches a truck that is moving slowly. To maintain our speed, the car activates its turn signal and begins steering to the left, toward the passing lane. Just as it does, another car swerves into the passing lane from several cars behind. The BMW quickly switches off its signal and pulls back to the center of the lane, waiting for the speeding car to pass before trying again.
Putting your life in the hands of a robot chauffeur offers an unnerving glimpse into how driving is about to be upended. The automobile, which has followed a path of steady but slow technological evolution for the past 130 years, is on course to change dramatically in the next few years, in ways that could have radical economic, environmental, and social impacts.
The first autonomous systems, which are able to control steering, braking, and accelerating, are already starting to appear in cars; these systems require drivers to keep an eye on the road and hands on the wheel. But the next generation, such as BMW’s self-driving prototype, could be available in less than a decade and free drivers to work, text, or just relax. Ford, GM, Toyota, Nissan, Volvo, and Audi have all shown off cars that can drive themselves, and they have all declared that within a decade they plan to sell some form of advanced automation—cars able to take over driving on highways or to park themselves in a garage. Google, meanwhile, is investing millions in autonomous driving software, and its driverless cars have become a familiar sight on the highways around Silicon Valley over the last several years.
The allure of automation for car companies is huge. In a fiercely competitive market, in which the makers of luxury cars race to indulge customers with the latest technology, it would be commercial suicide not to invest heavily in an automated future. “It’s the most impressive experience we can offer,” Werner Huber, the man in charge of BMW’s autonomous driving project, told me at the company’s headquarters in Munich. He said the company aims to be “one of the first in the world” to introduce highway autonomy.