Everywhere you turn in the world of fiction, cars are operating without the interference of mankind, and on the whole, they are driving themselves better than we ever did. KITT. The Batmobile. Jean Claude van Damme’s ride in Timecop. Isn’t it about time that your car drove itself?

While a commercially viable robotic car is still years off, the concept isn’t consigned to science fiction anymore. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class comes equipped with radar assisted brakes and a cruise control function that operates with a mind of it’s own. Then again, maybe that’s not much of a surprise from a car that made the trip from Munich to Copenhagen without a driver more than a decade ago. Lexus has introduced the Advanced Parking Guidance System to take the stress out of parallel parking by taking the control out of human hands, and numerous makes and models will be happy to give their weary drivers a warning should they begin to drift out of their lane or enter a demolition derby.

But really, in the 21st century, why should we even have to worry about keeping our cars in the correct lane? Shouldn’t we be merely turning a key, announcing a destination and letting an advanced artifical intelligence shepherd me to my goal like a good natured, animatronic Hoke Colburn? When compared to even David Hasselhoff’s first generation Knight Rider, the advances in robot car technology have been slow in coming and overwhelmingly devoted to safety. First off, robot cars are not about safety – they are about distinctly unsafe and impractical things. Things like chassis mounted flamethrowers, high tech sensory arrays, dashboard mass spectrometers and most importantly, cars that get where they need to be without any meddling from their fleshy, accident prone passengers. Where are these cars now?

As with so many questions, it appears that the innovative folks at DARPA have the answer. The future of vehicular AI was on display at the end of 2007 during the DARPA sponsored Urban Challenge, in which robotic cars from eleven universities across the U.S. did their own driving, including changing lanes, navigating stop lights and for the most part avoiding collisions with each other and a fleet of manned vehicles populating the track. The Urban Challenge grew out of earlier Grand Challenge events, in which teams mastered the cooler looking but much simpler task of offroading around a desert race course. And while designing a dune buggy that can drive itself without flipping is certainly on mean feat, it pales in comparison to building a sedan that can recognize a four way stop on it’s way to pick the kids up from soccer. 

Now to be fair, DARPA has it’s eyes turned more to the military application of this new technology in Unmanned Ground Vehicles – the plodding, terrestrial cousin to the Predator aerial drone currently at work in Afghanistan and Iraq. The same technology that helps SUV’s from MIT, Cornell and Stanford recognize red lights and rights of way will pave the way for this little fellow and his more maneuverable friend to replace human soldiers in combat.

But one suspects that commercial enterprises will be able to find some sort of use for them. Before it’s most recent financial beatdown, GM showed off a prototype driverless car at CES in 2008, and the technology may be closing in on ready. But before the rubber hits the road for intelligent, automated cars, a revamp of traffic controls on the streets they’ll be navigating will have to take place. In the United Arab Emirates much hyped City of the Future, the groundwork is already being laid. The rest of the world, though, remains in the research stage, and some of it is coming from the places you’d least expect.