The real significance of the Fusion is not the “strong personality” or the fact that Ford will offer both hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions, but that it is the first moderate-priced (under $30,000) car to offer key technologies on the road to driverless cars: adaptive cruise control, lane keeping, self-parking, and collision avoidance. While Ford’s versions of these technologies are weak in that they don’t actually drive the car, when combined with an enhanced GPS navigation system, it is likely that all that will be needed to turn the 2013 Fusion into a totally self-driving car will be a software upgrade.
Even more powerful near-self-driving cars are on the horizon. Volkswagen has an “auto pilot” car that goes “semi-automatically at speeds of up to 80 mph on highways.” BMW is testing a similar technology. Audi (owned by Volkswagen) has a “traffic jam assistant” that can handle driving on streets and in thick traffic at up to 37 mph. But basically, these cars use the same technologies as the 2013 Ford Fusion with more complex software and perhaps a few additional sensors.
General Motors’ vice-president of research Alan Taub estimates that fully driverless cars will be available for sale by 2020, which is two years later than his predecessor, Larry Burns, estimated four years ago. But, as Burns noted, the main obstacles are “not technical, but bureaucratic.” So far, the leader in breaking down these bureaucratic obstacles is Google, which recently patented what it hopes will be a key part of future driverless cars. We might be able to accelerate this process if someone can convince Tim Cook and Steve Ballmer to join the fray.