With companies like Tesla, Uber, Google and BMW all pushing toward fully autonomous technology — a pervasive theme in the technology sector over the last year — the irony about the future of driving is that fewer people will be doing actual driving.
At the Consumer Electronics Show last week, BMW allowed CNBC to see its self-driving technology in action, taking its Series 5 car for a test drive — or perhaps better said, the car took a CNBC reporter out for a spin.
As part of its autonomous car experience, BMW aggregated public data on traffic lights in Las Vegas so countdowns were available on the cloud dashboard, sharing a space in the central console where a radio would be. This feature could be a commuter's dream: It tells the exact second a light would turn red, yellow or green. Once the car hit the highway, a blue button switched the car into a fully autonomous mode, gliding to a speed much steadier than one a human driver would maintain.
The entire drive was a tour in the next wave of autonomous technology. As the passengers took their place in the vehicle, equipped with the BMW open mobility cloud, a Segway parking robot called Loomo was busy at work parking a returning car.
For the next 90 minutes, two engineers in the front passenger and back seats rode on the automated voyage. The car itself is equipped with several sensors from cameras to an Intel depth sensor. BMW's open mobility cloud is a recently launched digital experience that allows passengers or drivers to interact with destinations using a series of gestures.
Liberated from the burden of having to keep one's eye on the road, passengers can do a range of other tasks, including making dinner reservations.
The demo had a story line that began by having the passengers meet our "dad" in a parking lot, follow him to another point, and order something from Amazon Prime — just one of the third-party partner applications that will be integrated into the open mobility cloud, along with Microsoft's Cortana and Opentable. These actions on the road were used to showcase the capabilities of the open mobility cloud.
The next destination would be picking up the Amazon package on the way back to the original start site. This cloud, which is supported by Microsoft and Amazon, will be available to consumers starting in March.
While in the car going over 50 mph on the highway, the engineers riding along showed what else a passenger could do while in the fully autonomous mode: watch a movie, gesture control to the cloud to have the car read information out to me or even make dinner reservations.
As a movie turns on with Amazon Prime on a console in the backseat, the sun roof closes and lights dim into a cinema mode that reduces the glare. By gesturing to the center console, passengers are also able to receive information about locations they are passing.
While the car did drive itself, it was hard for CNBC to break from the impulse of holding the wheel, or just watching the road—somewhat to the dismay of the BMW engineers accompanying the passenger.
The reality of testing a driverless car, both as a consumer and an occupant in the car, does leave one with a sneaking suspicion it could at some point falter in its drive. If this really is the future of driving, car makers may want to seriously weigh some combination of human controlled driving and a fully autonomous mode. That is because the interaction with cars still piloted by humans could pose a challenge, especially if a regular car isn't being carefully driven.
BMW, like other carmakers like Ford, has said that autonomous cars will be in production by 2021. While that may sound too close to believe, the technology is well on the road to reality.