NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The next time an Audi passes you on the road, look to see if there is a driver behind the wheel. That is, if you're driving in California.
Last week, Audi became the first automaker in California with a permit from the state to test self-driving vehicles on public roads, putting itself at the forefront of a technology that has the potential to change society.
"If there's a race to get self-driving cars to market, Audi is leading," says Jesse Toprak, chief auto analyst for Cars.com. "Audi being first means they're able to pull off the requirements the fastest. They have the technology and the know-how, but right now, it's more of a showpiece than a market opportunity — like coming up with a super car that you're only going to sell a few of. The future implications are much more important ... But at the moment, it will get people talking and excited."
Toprak and other analysts see numerous implications for Audi, for the state of California and for society. Self-driving technology proponents say the cars will improve safety on the roads, provide a means for homebound people to get around again and dramatically change the quality of life for others in gridlocked urban areas. And all of that could play out in California first.
Audi got permits to test the self-driving vehicles on the same day a wave of automotive laws went into effect in California allowing testing on public roads and rules for the tests, insurance, registration and reporting by manufacturers. It's just the beginning of the state's efforts to help the cars get to market.
The state is finalizing regulations to allow the public to operate the cars, says Bernard Soriano, a deputy director from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. You might be able to hit the road with self-driving cars next year, if the technology is ready.
"We are the land of dreamers and doers," Soriano says. "Things are innovative here, and this is another manifestation of that ... Next year the rules will be in place for carmakers to sell those cars to the public. But they have to be ready. They will have to demonstrate how safe the vehicles are."
Audi is not the only automaker racing to demonstrate the safety of its self-driving vehicles and get them to market. Google and Mercedes-Benz also now have permits in California.
Still, analysts say Audi maintains the competitive edge — for the moment.
"Google is not technically an automaker. That's the problem," Toprak says. "In principle they have the product, but they don't have the distribution. So the most imminent production vehicle appears to be from Audi."
Audi's self-driving technology could be ready for consumer introduction within five years, a press release from the carmaker says.
Audi, also first to get permits to test the cars in Nevada and Florida, says California roads are especially crucial to Audi Piloted driving testing because the state is home to the brand's Electronics Research Lab. ERL engineers are still working on a range of automated driving issues, including human-machine interface prompts that indicate when the human or the vehicle are handling driving functions.
It remains unclear how much the cars will sell for and where they will be sold once ready for market, says Audi Corporate Communications Manager Brad Stertz, noting that sales locations will depend on laws and regulations in place at the state or national level once the cars are released.
The bigger question is how readily society will adopt the technology — because, after all, self-driving cars mean being comfortable with a vehicle that typically does not come with a steering wheel, brake pedal or accelerator.
On the other hand, self-driving vehicles allow for such luxuries as sending your car to the airport to pick up an arriving guest while you wait comfortably at home, or allowing the vehicle to shuttle the kids to that soccer practice, swim meet or numerous other activities that turn parents into chauffeurs.
A recent survey by Mojo Motors found that one out of five people would buy the cars if they were available right now.
"One out of the four people who said 'no, they wouldn't buy the car right now' said they felt the cars would be too expensive," says Paul Nadjarian, founder and CEO of Mojo Motors. "I think there's a couple really significant hurdles to self-driving cars becoming more mainstream — one is consumer adoption and the other is regulatory."
California aside, regulatory hurdle remains significant, says Nadjarian, pointing out that self-driving cars are legal in only three other states: Florida, Nevada and Michigan.
"It's going to take time. My personal belief is this technology is going to be adopted by car service companies and delivery companies where you could just get in the car and get a ride like a taxi, but without the driver. Companies like Uber could use this technology," Nadjarian says.
Once adopted, self-driving vehicles could be a game changer — at least in Southern California, where not only are cars often essential because of the lack of public transportation, but also because motorists spend hours on the road during daily commutes.
"We are the car culture. The whole Southern California region is all about cars," Soriano says. "This technology is going to change society and change how we operate ... It is going to provide mobility again to people who are disabled or who are older. They'll have their life back."
And others will get their commuting time back.
"In Los Angeles, half of your life is spent in a car. It would be so much better if we could do some work during all that time in the car and let the car do the driving," Toprak says.
— By Mia Taylor for MainStreet