Bryan Reimer, a transportation researcher with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab, said it will be decades before people can buy truly self-driving cars in which humans ride solely as passengers.
Still, the technology that will be rolled out by the major automakers this year will do more than most so-called Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, or ADAS, do now.
[GM's] Super Cruise, like other ADAS, isn't intended to replace a human driver. It's just supposed to relieve the driver of the mundane tasks of maintaining a lane position and avoiding other cars. But it can be tempting to think the machine has it all under control.
"We're human. I mean, I'm no longer fully engaged in this," said MIT's Reimer. "I'm willing to, you know, perhaps trust the automation a little more than I should until something goes disastrously wrong."
There have been fatal crashes when Tesla drivers ignored warnings to keep their hands on the wheel while using Autopilot. With Super Cruise, Reimer said, GM has done a good job of guarding against driver inattention by requiring that drivers watch the road. Tesla cars do not have the sort of driver monitoring in place.
For now, Tesla still warns that drivers must pay attention at all times while any of its vehicles' driver assistance systems are operating.
Reimer said the sensors in Tesla's cars simply will not allow for genuine self-driving in complex environments in the near future. Specifically, Teslas lack the lidar sensors most experts say are needed for a true self-driving car. Lidar bounces laser light off surrounding objects, and times how long the light waves take to return to sensor. In this way, it builds a three-dimensional image of a vehicle's surroundings moment-by-moment. Radar does the same thing with radio waves, but lidar provides a much more detailed picture.
"To complete the ability, to get what I would call a robust and reliable model of the environment around the vehicle, you would need to add a fourth sensing technology, in addition to cameras, radar and ultrasonics," said Kay Stepper, senior vice president for automated driving and driver assistance engineering at the auto parts supplier Bosch. "Now [you'd have to add] lidar."
MIT's Reimer agrees. Without the accuracy of lidar, it just isn't possible to completely release humans from the task of driving.
"Doing it successfully nine out of 10 times is probably feasible," said Reimer. "Doing it reliably enough that I'm willing to walk on the street [with these cars around]? Different story."