Guess What? You're Already Driving an Autonomous Car

04/15/2015 01:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

With all the talk of self-driving cars and automated Uber cabs, it might be easy to assume that a futuristic world of driverless cars and unclogged streets is just a few years away. The truth is, you're probably already driving an autonomous car.

A recent Autotrader poll revealed that 65 percent of consumers think self-driving cars are a dangerous idea. But in reality, the widespread adoption of adaptive cruise control is already putting semi-autonomous cars in the hands of average commuters. Years ago, when brands like Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz introduced us to adaptive cruise control, it was a great feature, but it was reserved primarily for high-end luxury cars.

Adaptive cruise control uses lasers, radar or cameras to monitor a vehicle's surroundings and then cause the car to adapt to those surroundings based on criteria set by the driver. This usually means the car will speed up or slow down with the flow of traffic, without need for the driver's input.

Affordable Self-Driving Tech

As adaptive cruise control technology trickled down from the Jaguar XKs of the world, it ended up in some fairly popular cars. Better yet, it ended up in some fairly affordable cars. Check out some of these names: Chrysler 200, Kia Cadenza, Nisssan Murano, Subaru Legacy and Toyota Sienna. Not exactly high-dollar luxury cars, right? Opt for a 2015 Subaru Legacy 2.5i Premium with the EyeSight driver-assist system, and you're looking at a $25,500 car.

Most cars with adaptive cruise control have the ability to match the speed of a vehicle ahead while keeping a safe distance, come to a full stop and then start again with little or no input from the driver. Toyota vehicles with an adaptive cruise system don't work under 25 mph, so not all cars with adaptive cruise control work the same way. Some require the driver to take a brief action (maybe tapping the gas pedal) to get the car going again after a stop that's longer than a few seconds.

Most of this is thanks to by-wire technology, which is already making its way into many mainstream cars. Even airplanes have by-wire tech; the company Airbus calls it "a principal competitive advantage." By wire essentially means there's no mechanical connection between the operator and the component. In a car, drive by wire could mean no mechanical connection between the gas pedal and the engine, for example, or between the steering wheel and the front wheels of the car. Instead, the gas pedal or steering wheel is like a progressive switch that sends an electric current to the engine's throttle or the car's steering components, telling it how much to react based on what the driver is doing. In some ways, this is similar to a child's remote control car. Perhaps the kind with small cord between the controller and the car is most correct analogy.

This technology is becoming more common. According to Car and Driver, in 2005, electric-only steering could be found on roughly 26 percent of cars built in Europe, Japan, Korea and North America. By 2011, that number was nearly 60 percent.

Add a feature like Subaru's lane-keeping assist, and you now have a car that can essentially drive itself. Of course, it's more complicated than that, but all the required pieces for self-driving cars are essentially in place.

Modern Cars Know a Lot

Cars with collision avoidance and adaptive cruise control can do a lot more than just regulate speed or warn you of a potential accident. Subaru's EyeSight system uses cameras mounted at the top of the windshield and even gives you a friendly warning that the car ahead has pulled away, in case you're not paying full attention. It even has a very science-y name; Lead Vehicle Start Alert. It can also warn you of an impending front-end collision and even apply the brakes to lessen the impact, or avoid an accident altogether.

Many new cars can do the same thing. Nissan, for instance, now has a feature called Predictive Forward Collision Warning. This system not only monitors the speed and position of the car ahead, but it monitors the car in front of that one, as well. If the car ahead of the one just in front of you suddenly brakes or changes lanes, a Nissan with this the system will warn you and tighten your seatbelt.

Some cars from BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Toyota and many others can also park themselves. In fact this is probably the oldest bit of tech when it comes to autonomous cars.

Many of these cars collect lots of information about the world around them, but for now, the car may or may not be able to act on that information.

Hybrid Approach

In the short-term, expect cars to operate with a combination of automated and manual driving. It's already happening in many instances. I've experienced it with the 2015 Chrysler 200 and 2015 Nissan Murano.

As I leave my company's parking garage, I drive the car normally, fully operating the steering, braking and acceleration. I make my way to the highway, then once I get above the car's minimum speed for cruise control (roughly 35 mph), I set that and let the car do the accelerating and braking by itself. All I do is steer. As my exit approaches, I turn the adaptive cruise off, signal and make my way to the exit. Because the rest of my trip home is on surface streets, I drive the car normally until I get home. I've been doing this for weeks and must admit, it's a lot less stressful. On the freeway, I just pick a lane and stay in it all the way to my exit.

I like driving, but if one of these cars had a self-drive button, I would use it all the time. I know many people have reservations about this kind of tech, but I don't think any of those objections are strong enough to keep me from embracing it.

Granted, these systems aren't perfect: Some are too sensitive, others can only "see" in a straight line, and then there's the inevitable transition period that might give insurance companies and automakers night terrors as they contemplate liability.

Still, given my experience with some of today's semi-self-driving cars, I wouldn't really mind having a car that fully drives itself, so long as I can take over when the driving environment is fun. As it turns out, a lot of people already have a car that comes close to doing just that.