DETROIT — When — not if, enthusiasts say, but when — the auto industry begins selling autonomous, self-driving cars, don't expect them to look like the test vehicles out on the road today.
There won't be any visible, giant rotating mechanism on the top of your car, filled with lasers, radar systems and other sensing equipment, but instead discrete sensors will be packed inside fascias and other plastic exterior panels.
"The systems are getting smaller," said Chris Attard, a virtual environment research engineer with Ford Motor Co.'s autonomous driving research group.
The four infrared light — or LiDAR — sensors on Ford's Fusion hybrid research vehicle now being used for tests on the track and on the road are about half the size of the ones used on first generation systems. And the newest LiDAR units on the market are about half the size of those on the Fusion, Attard pointed out during an interview at the North American International Auto Show's press preview, Jan. 13-14 in Detroit.
All of the working parts on the newest sensors are packaged inside the part's plastic body, Attard said, so a car using even those systems will be less noticeable on the road.
The concept of autonomous cars has rapidly gone from a joking "Jetson's" reference to a serious study in the auto industry. IHS Automotive estimates that the first self-driving cars with driver controls will hit highways around the world by 2025, and self-driving only cars — which will not require driver input — will be sold by 2030.
The Southfield, Mich.-based auto forecasting team for IHS estimates that there will be 230,000 cars on the road with some self-driving features by 2025 and 11.8 million with some kind of self-driving feature 10 years after that.
Detroit-based General Motors Co. intends to have "semi-autonomous" vehicles on the road by the end of this decade. Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. has pledged to have multiple commercial vehicles ready by 2020, according to research group KPMG LLC.
"We are investing a lot and we will be mass marketing this product in 2020 at least in selected markets," Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said in a video news release from the Tokyo-based automaker. "We believe a lot in the potential of this technology, and I believe many carmakers will come practically at the same moment with their own offer."
KPMG's 2013 report on autonomous cars warns that consumers trust technology companies like Google more than automakers, so carmakers need to be involved now in future development so they do not miss out on potential new business.
It is not just about driver ease, analysts and automakers say, but auto safety. Self-driving cars can adjust automatically for surrounding traffic and road hazards. They can travel in tightly packed automated "convoys," because they will communicate with each other to avoid collisions.
"We see a future of connected cars that communicate with each other and the world around them to make driving safer, ease traffic congestion and sustain the environment," said Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford in a statement on his company's investment.
"Automated driving may well help us to improve driver safety and manage issues such as traffic congestion and global gridlock," added Raj Nair, group vice president for Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford global product development.
A self-driving car continually scans for potential issues, unlike a human driver who may be distracted or underestimate the distance needed to stop, said Egil Juliussen, principal analyst for infotainment and autonomous driver assisted systems at IHS.
"Accident rates will plunge to near zero for [self-driving cars] although other cars will crash into SDCs, but as the market share of SDCs on the highway grows, overall accident rates will decline steadily," he said.
IHS also warns of two major technology concerns for self-driving cars, however — software reliability and cyber security.
The 32 lasers in the LiDAR system on Ford's Fusion scans the road and its surroundings 20,000 times per second, covering all 360 degrees around the car, Attard said. That is far more complex than a human is capable of doing.
During the auto show, Attard pointed to the stored data from a recent drive by the Fusion in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the system "saw" not only other vehicles, buildings and signs, but also pedestrians on the sidewalks and even picked up cracks in the pavement and worn paint in crosswalks.
Some elements of an autonomous car already are in place on cars sold today with adaptive cruise controls which automatically adjust to maintain a safer distance in traffic and cars that can begin applying the brakes in emergency situations before the driver can react.
There are systems for lane departure warnings — in case a drowsy or distracted driver drifts out of his lane — and blind spot detectors.
Integrating all those sensors could mean new opportunities for plastics suppliers, both in electronics and packaging.
Ford, for instance, used the tail light modules on its new F-150 pickup truck as the housing for its blind spot detector, since the electronics could not be placed on the steel and aluminum structure and body.
Satellite antennas and detectors are increasingly being integrated in thermoplastic spoilers and roof trim. Bayer MaterialScience sales and technology specialists have frequently pointed to the potential of a polycarbonate sunroof system to house electronics that cannot go into a metal roof.
"As the vehicles become more electrified and there are more electronic components and radars and sensors, plastics does not have the electromagnetic interference [of metal] so our materials are a good fit for those trends," said José Chirino, industrial marketing manager for Bayer Material Science.
A plastic subsystem like a spoiler also becomes a good option for electronic sensors because those parts are easier to replace than an entire metal structure.
"It's interesting to be working on these types of developments," he said.