Brad Templeton doesn't like the term driverless cars.
"I never use that term -- it's like 'horseless carriages'," says Templeton, an in-demand speaker, futurist and industry veteran whose resume includes consulting on Google's various automated vehicle projects.
"I wish we had a better consensus term, but we really don't. Anyway, I never call them driverless cars because that kind of implies that there's nothing driving."
Whatever you call them -- autonomous vehicles, robotic automobiles -- the idea of cars that drive themselves is taking up a lot of real estate in the cultural mindspace these days. The technology is being developed on multiple fronts by heavy hitters in both Detroit and Silicon Valley.
Click around and you'll see new headlines every day on various aspects of this emerging technology -- regulation and safety, city planning and infrastructure, software and hardware.
So what's the outlook, from where we now stand? Will be have truly self-driving cars in 20 years? And what is the Next Big Thing that will determine the future?
Dr. Peter Sweatman, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) oversees the university's Mobility Transformation Facility -- a kind of simulated city center that will be used to test automated and what Sweatman terms "connected" cars. The test facility occupies 32 acres on the university's north campus, and will officially open in June.
The fake city center will include intersections, roundabouts, a railroad crossing, a tunnel, a freeway on-ramp and even mechanical cyclists and pedestrians.
The idea is to create a smart grid urban environment where every vehicle is communicating constantly with every other vehicle -- in addition to road signs, stoplights and buildings.
This is the future for autonomous vehicles, Sweatman suggests, at least in busy urban areas. Ultimately, the 20-year outlook for driverless cars includes a kind of two-part collision -- hmm, probably the wrong term -- between automated vehicles and connected vehicles.
"You can think of these as being a separate technologies, or you can think of them as being closely related," Sweatman says. "We have increasing automation coming into motor vehicles, and there are different levels that exist now and that we will move through in the future."
Combine the automated vehicle, as we think of it today, with the kind of connected vehicle systems being researched at the Mobility Transformation Facility, and you've got something even more powerful, he says.
"These technologies are very synergistic," Sweatman says. "You can think of the connected vehicle technology as another sensor used by automated vehicles -- like machine vision and radar technologies."
Sweatman says it's important to keep in mind that connected vehicles on the smart city grid won't be moved around by some central processing unit. "It's not as if there's an unseen hand orchestrating everything," he says. "That's not what's happening. The intelligence is in each vehicle."
Templeton agrees that the drivers in future driverless vehicles -- it gets rather Zen -- will ultimately be the vehicles themselves, and not the city grid or the roads.
"You don't do it in infrastructure, you do it in software," Templeton says. "That's much, much faster. It's easier to develop software so that the car can drive on the roads you have now, rather than change the roads. Changing roads, that's a matter of decades. Changing software, that's a matter of months."
So by the year 2035, will we be at the point where we can climb in our cars, indicate a destination, and take a nap?
"Yes, I think so," Sweatman says. "In 20 years, we're still going to have some manual operation. But predominantly, I think vehicles will be automated. There will be a kind of on-demand mobility service where you use your smart phone or whatever your device is -- your smart tie clip -- to get a ride."
"You call up a driverless machine and you're dropped off wherever, and the machine goes off and picks up the next person. Some will be two-passenger, or four-passenger. Some will have freight capabilities, so they're delivering parcels locally, as well."
Templeton adds a critical caveat.
"Of course, a lot of this will all depend on where you are," Templeton says.
"In 2035, if you're coming up on Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, I'll predict there will be lots of people moving around using some kind of automated vehicle. But if you're in Burundi or Sao Paolo, where it's very difficult to drive no matter what -- well, that's going to take longer."