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Automakers take differing routes to self-driving future

If there’s one thing some of the world’s biggest automakers can agree on, it’s that the arrival of self-driving cars is just a few years away. But as for how to get there, everyone’s taking a different path.

At this year’s CES, the annual consumer technology show in Las Vegas, car companies pitched their respective visions for an autonomous future, and some are more ambitious than others.

Companies such as Audi and Nissan have pledged to have vehicles that can fully drive themselves — albeit with a human behind the wheel — available for commercial use by 2020, while Ford and BMW are looking at 2021.

Others, such as Hyundai and Toyota, are focused on putting less expensive and more limited self-driving capabilities, respectively, into cars for average consumers.

At the same time, automakers are competing with more traditional technology companies, such as Google and Uber, which have long been working on commercial self-driving technology of their own, and are currently leading the pack.

“The ultimate goal is to build a vehicle incapable of causing a crash,” said Toyota’s James Kuffner, the chief technology officer of the automaker’s artificial intelligence research lab.

Show and tell

On the show floor, Ford eschewed a futuristic concept car in favour of more realistic fare, putting a fully autonomous Fusion Hybrid on display at the company’s booth. 

Ford — along with BMW and Nissan — is aiming its self-driving vehicles at commercial ride-sharing and ride-hailing applications, at least at first.

Toyota's Concept-i car CES 2017

Toyota is developing self-driving technology at its year-old artificial intelligence research lab, but offered a glimpse at where its efforts may lead with the Concept-i car unveiled at CES. (Matthew Braga/CBC News)

Hyundai, meanwhile, says it has developed a fully autonomous version of its IONIQ vehicle, which uses less expensive sensors, and less computing power, in a bid to make the technology more accessible to consumers.

“It can actually handle all driving situations without any kind of driver intervention,” said Hyundai’s Andre Ravinowich, the company’s manager of advanced technology strategy. “Although there is a driver behind the wheel, in case something does happen.”

Ravinowich couldn’t say when the technology would make it into production vehicles, nor what it would cost.

Coming soon

Toyota, too, is looking at consumer applications, rather than commercial ones. The company has been developing a feature it calls Guardian, which can automatically take control of the vehicle in unsafe situations. 

“We’ve been really focusing on exploring how the technology can be used in a mode where it isn’t active just all the time, but is active when it needs to be,” Kuffner explained.

CBC at CES: 

Toyota is also looking to bring fully autonomous capabilities to its cars — with no driver necessary — but the company believes that future is much further off.

In the near term, Audi may be the first automaker with a commercial vehicle that offers limited autonomy — specifically, the ability to steer, accelerate and brake by itself under certain conditions under about 56 km/h, without human intervention. (Tesla’s Autopilot, on the other hand, still requires the driver to monitor the vehicle when engaged.)

Audi is calling the feature Traffic Jam Pilot, and it will be available on the company’s Audi A8 vehicle later this year.