A diagram of Ford

Almost taking a page out of a sci-fi novel or cheesy ‘80s television show, it seems the era of the autonomous automobile is fast approaching.

This week California became the third state to legalize autonomous car technology, reports the Wall Street Journal, following in the footsteps of Nevada and Florida, which have already passed similar legislation. Google has been testing a fleet of autonomous prototype vehicles. WSJ reports that the self-driving cars have so far logged “50,000 miles without 'intervention' from a human operator,” and “more than 300,000 miles with some human assistance….”

Although fully autonomous cars are still in the testing phase and not quite ready for production, many new cars on the road today already employ technology that makes them at least semi-autonomous in certain situations. Autoblog writes that safety features like traction and stability control and anti-lock brakes all cede some driver control to the car in dangerous situations.

Some newer active safety features give even more control to the car itself. Active lane control, where a car will intervene if it detects the driver wandering into an adjacent lane, is just one example. Others include radar-based cruise control systems, which keep the car a set distance from the car in front of it, and slow the car if it gets too close to the vehicle in front; automatic front and rear braking systems, which automatically hit the brakes if the car detects an impending collision; and parallel park assist systems, such as those found on several new Ford and Lexus vehicles, where the car steers itself into a parking space with minimal driver input.

An upcoming autonomous vehicle technology is traffic jam assist. CNET writes that some luxury automakers like Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have each demonstrated systems where the car is fully capable of driving itself and maintaining its lane in traffic jam, low speed scenarios.

Many of these technologies are gaining acceptance and are becoming more common as the technology improves and becomes less expensive. While your next car may not have an autopilot button, chances are good it will be able to perform certain driving functions on its own.

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