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Google And Automakers Battle Over The Future Of Driverless Cars

Right now, engineers and scientists at the world’s top automakers are hunkered down working on what some claim is the future of driving — that is, the future of not driving.

Tech futurists have been dreaming up visions of driverless, exotic cars for decades, but in 2015 the technology is hardly a science fiction fantasy anymore. Google has successfully road tested driverless cars, which the company claims are safer than any other type of vehicle.

In Google’s limited testing, the only accidents reported occurred when people crashed into the driverless cars, not the other way around. In the Dominican Republic, an experimental Volvo XC60 driverless car crashed into a crowd of bystanders. But again, the source of the problem was human error — the test driver thought the car was equipped with a system to automatically avoid pedestrians (it wasn’t).

For now, Google and luxury car manufacturers are the main competitors in this new space. Already, certain luxury brands feature autonomous controls that keep a car within its lane, detect blind spots, and have adaptive cruise control. As more autonomous technology becomes standard on the highway and in urban environments, industry watchdogs are asking themselves a critical question — will consumers trust driverless cars made by technology companies like Google, or trusted automakers like General Motors and Mercedes Benz?

The two sides of this race have very different visions for the future of driverless cars. Automakers want to phase in the technology slowly, in fits and starts. Google warns that such an incremental roll out would be disastrous. Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving car division, says that would be like saying if you practice jumping, one day you’ll be able to fly.

“The prevailing philosophy is that we’re going to take the driver assistance systems that are in the vehicle today and we’re going to incrementally make those better and better, and eventually we’ll get to this point where we have self-driving cars,” Urmson says. “We fundamentally don’t believe that’s the case.”

Silicon Valley loyalists have put their faith in Google, obviously, saying the future of driving will be a fleet of self-driving taxis and very low consumer ownership of cars. For equally obvious reasons, auto companies and auto brokers disagree with that vision. America currently has an astounding 800 cars for every 1,000 residents. And although just 15% of the car market includes luxury automobiles, currently the only vehicles with autonomous features, that’s still a significant market share. In 2014, auto brokers and dealerships sold one million cars to U.S. drivers for more than $50,000.

And every year, auto brokers believe more of those drivers will expect more autonomous features. But will they come from Google’s labs, or car makers research and development?