TOKYO/FRANKFURT, Nov 16: At the recent Frankfurt Auto Show, Ford Motor Co unveiled a new feature that lets drivers pre-set their car to go at or just above the speed limit. In-car cameras and software read and react to road signs, speeding the car up or slowing it down.
Active Speed Limiter is available on select models in Europe, but not, ironically, in the United States, Ford's home country, where road signs come in different shapes and sizes, and are often obscured by shrubbery.
So it goes on the road to the self-driving, or autonomous, car - a journey of, well, stops and starts that most experts say will take a couple decades to complete.
Meantime, advances in "semi-autonomy" - features that help handle tricky or tiresome driving situations but still require a driver's oversight - have sparked a high-tech automotive arms race, with car companies vying to launch the most advanced features.
Automakers hope semi-autonomous features will, over time, help drivers and regulators get over fears of riding in vehicles that accelerate, steer and stop themselves, making potentially life-or-death judgments.
Shorter term, car companies want these features to make driving more convenient - and cars more profitable.
"People like features that make driving easier, safer and more fun," says Joseph Vitale Jr, who heads global automotive consulting for Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. "The question is what customers will pay for them." Ford's Active Speed Limiter comes at 560 euros ($602.78), and it's too soon to tell how popular it will be.
Among the biggest winners for now are the companies that produce electronic sensors, cameras and software that make self-driving features possible.
The growing list includes the high-tech units of traditional automotive suppliers such as Germany's Continental AG, Israel's Mobileye Vision Technologies, and consumer-technology giants Google, Apple, Samsung Electronics Co, Sony Corp and more. At Silicon Valley's Nvidia Corp, for example, video games remain the biggest market, but automotive revenue is the fastest-growing segment.
"We're in well over 8 million cars on the road today and will be in more than 30 million in the next three to four years," says Jen-Hsun Huang, Nvidia's president and CEO. "Future cars will sense and understand the world moving around them."
A big step in that direction was the traffic-jam assistance feature on the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Now available on more Mercedes models, the Intelligent Drive system allows the car to drive itself at low speeds in traffic jams, freeing the driver from constant braking. ?Reuters