Autonomous Vehicles ("AVs" for purposes of this article) are those which can drive themselves without any human input and is a technology that has existed primarily in Science Fiction for the last century or so of automotive development. That is all about to change, and by "about to" we mean in the next few years. 2020 is the date Nissan has given as it's goal for fielding a showroom ready autonomous vehicle that the general public can buy and
Nissan certainly isn't alone. Mercedes-Benz also just completed a historic 60-mile journey that retraced the path of the original Benz Patent-Motorwagen journey, also the first known road trip in an automobile, that Karl Benz's wife, Bertha, made with their two sons over 125-years ago. The car used for the modern trip, an S500 Intelligent Drive research vehicle, didn't even use any specialized equipment other than adapting lane departure, adaptive cruise control, automatic braking systems, etc., that is already in place on the next-generation 2014 models. You can see that the technology is largely already there. The trip also marked the first regular road drive in an AV that operated among the general population of pedestrians, bicycles, and animals crossing the roads in addition to the basic open-highway testing that other manufacturers have performed to date. Autonomy for it's cars is apparently such a focus of long term product planning at Daimler that it's CEO, Dieter Zetsche, said of the technology, "For us, autonomous vehicles are an important step on the way to accident-free driving." We all know how seriously Mercedes takes their role as safety innovators.
Cadillac and Tesla also made it clear they are not planning to watch this technological revolution from the sidelines. Cadillac hopes to have their own version ready just behind Nissan's and Tesla is presently looking to hire experts in their field to help develop their system which is a bit more ambitious in that company CEO, Elon Musk, states that he plans to have a car that can drive 90% of regular roadways in full autonomous mode within just three years.
Volvo has also been working on their advancements for several years and have been largely successful, aside from that one embarrassing incident. OK, and maybe that second one too. Audi, Volkswagen, BMW, Toyota, and presumably others, are also working on their own versions.
Decades ago many believed that in order to accommodate AVs, cities would need to embed special magnets, sensors or other devices into the physical roadway to guide the cars, much like that old toy van from the 1970's that would follow a line you drew with a crayon. We're glad we didn't end up going this route for real world cars, the results could be rather maddening at times.
Oh yeah, about that "coming soon" part, we weren't being entirely honest with you. Google, who heads up their own AV program, claims there is already around a dozen AVs on American roadways at any given moment testing and improving their systems. Those cars have logged over 500,000 miles to date. Google engineers are routinely driven to work by their automatic drivers by making their daily commute in a series of Toyota and Lexus vehicles outfitted with their proprietary Google Chauffeur system.