Self-Driving Cars to Take Off

For the 32nd consecutive year, The University of Alabama’s Office of Media Relations offers predictions from faculty experts for the coming year.

Once in the realm of science fiction, cars able to drive themselves will become more prevalent as the first versions are introduced to consumers during 2013, says a University of Alabama engineering professor who worked to develop the technology.

European automakers will begin introducing autonomous cars in the top-tier luxury vehicles in the coming year. Although many auto manufactures have introduced cars with limited driving ability, such as parallel parking and abilities to warn distracted drivers of emergency situations, the coming year will mark the first time consumers will be able to buy self-driving cars.

“It will get tremendous notice,” says Dr. Bharat Balasubramanian, a UA professor with joint appointments in mechanical engineering and electrical and computer engineering. “Premium luxury cars will kick it off.”

Balasubramanian, who is also executive director of UA’s Center for Advanced Vehicle Technologies, was vice president of group research and advanced engineering at Daimler AG, responsible for product innovations and process technologies before coming to the UA College of Engineering in fall 2012. He retired in 2012 after nearly 40 years as a research and development engineer for the Mercedes-Benz brand in Stuttgart, Germany.

While some companies such as Google are experimenting with vehicles that drive without the need for human interaction, the luxury cars with autonomous driving features to be introduced in 2013 will feature autonomous driving in certain situations. Government regulations, potential liability issues and a general uneasiness with handing over all the driving to computers means it will likely be some time before cars become robots, Balasubramanian said.

Initially, luxury cars with automated driving will steer vehicles at low speeds such as in crawling, commuter traffic. The technology comes from an array of computers, cameras and radar embedded in the cars. This technology was first showcased three years ago in the Mercedes-Benz research car F800, Balasubramanian says.

First generation autonomous features will have steering wheel hands-on-detection, meaning the system will deactivate if drivers remove their hands from the wheel for an extended period of time. However, the safety features will remain activated in emergency situations such as collision braking and steering a drifting car back into a lane.

First adapters will be those who can afford top-of-line, luxury cars, but the technology will eventually trickle to other vehicles. Like with earlier technologies such as anti-lock brakes, it will likely take eight to 10 years before mass-adoption of these autonomous features, he says.

“It will be available this year, but it’s expensive,” says Balasubramanian. “New technology is initially always expensive, but in the coming years will cascade down the vehicle lines and become more of a standard feature.”


UA Media Relations, 205/348-5320


Dr. Bharat Balasubramanian, via Adam Jones in media relations, 205/348-6444,