You can show people an Italian supersedan that set a lap record on the famed Nürburgring circuit. You can point them to a sleek, affordable electric runabout that can go from Paris to Luxembourg on a single charge. But they’ll probably just want to know one thing: When are cars going to drive themselves?
The specter of the fully autonomous, virtually self-aware car has captured imaginations and dominated headlines like no other automotive story in decades. And for at least one very good reason: Such vehicles promise to dramatically reduce or even eliminate deaths and injuries in automobiles.
Yet as we spotlight the year’s 10 most technically innovative cars, there’s not a fully autonomous car available in any showroom in the world. My own view is that you won’t see one for 5 to 10 years—especially if you’re referring to (trumpets, please) Level 4 autonomy, the point at which human drivers can snooze or read a novel while the robotic chauffeur does all the work.
To be sure, advances are coming at a startling speed. Companies as established as Ford and as new as Google’s spin-off, called Waymo, are racking up countless autonomous kilometers in test vehicles, many of them on public roads. Seeing that, the hype-driven tech media continues to proclaim that we’re oh-so-close to showroom cars that can go it alone entirely.
It’s wishful thinking. Even Tesla’s vaunted (and misleadingly named) Autopilot doesn’t come close to it. One unfortunate Tesla driver learned that lesson the hard way, milliseconds before perishing when his Autopilot failed to detect and brake for a semi truck directly in his path.
And in 2017, every major global automaker is playing it safe and emphatically holding the line at Level 2 autonomy, which demands that a driver be ready to retake control at a moment’s notice. They’re focused on ever-improved lane keeping, automated braking, and other systems that serve as an electronic copilot—one that never outranks the driver. Humans must remain vigilant and (mostly) keep their hands on the wheel.
Whether that makes you cheer or jeer, you’ll find plenty of other technology triumphs that are in automobiles available now. Here we’ve assembled the best of these, including breakthroughs in performance, materials, electric power trains, and energy efficiency—and a couple of advances in semi-autonomous systems as well. Dig in, enjoy the bounty, and keep your eyes on the road.