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For a long time, self-driving cars were only possible in the world of science fiction. But if companies as diverse as Google and Ford are spending billions on the technology, we have to ask when that fiction becomes fact. NPR's Sonari Glinton is at Detroit's big car show to try to find out.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Two of the most important things at the North American International Auto Show are self-driving and autonomy. Now, you would think that they are the same things, but they're very different. And understanding the difference is important to understanding the future of the auto industry.
Hey, Jessica. Can I interview you on the way to Ford?
JESSICA CALDWELL: Yeah, of course.
GLINTON: Do me a favor, and introduce yourself.
CALDWELL: I'm Jessica Caldwell with Edmunds.
GLINTON: Walking between booths, I asked her the big question of the day. When are we going to get driverless cars? First she wanted to make sure I understood what a driverless or self-driving car is.
CALDWELL: A driverless car is when the car literally does all of the work for you. It drives for you. You don't need any driver input. So I think that's the dream most people have - is that they can sit in the car, and it's literally as if someone's driving for them. They don't need to sit in the driver's seat. They don't need to watch the traffic. They don't need to make sure no one's going to rear-end them. It's a place where you can just relax.
GLINTON: Got that? That is a driverless car. You don't need a steering wheel necessarily or pedals, and it can go anywhere on the road or off, which is different from an autonomous car, where it needs some kind of human input where a driver can, say, turn off a feature or turn it back on.
CALDWELL: You're still going to have to sit in the driver's seat. You're still going to have to be aware. You're going to have the option to let the car drive for you, but you can't just check out.
GLINTON: Now armed with a little bit of knowledge, on our way to Ford, let's stop by Volvo, which is owned by a big Chinese company with deep pockets. And they've started a self-driving company. Here's Volvo CEO Hakan Samuelsson. He says his company is being very cautious.
HAKAN SAMUELSSON: We are rather humble here and say, let's listen to these people, how they react because at the end, it will be credibility - having this product and nobody will trust it and may not use it. And I mean then it's not something we can bring to the market.
GLINTON: Volvo is testing their technology already with consumers, and they're licensing it to other companies. All right, we've arrived at Ford Motor Company.
GREG STEVENS: I'm Greg Stevens. I'm the global manager for automated driving at Ford.
GLINTON: Oh, look at you.
STEVENS: This is our car that we're displaying here at the show. It's our next-generation autonomous vehicle.
GLINTON: Now, when you say autonomous vehicle, tell me what you mean by that.
STEVENS: Yeah, what we mean is really clear. The vehicle drives itself. The people in the car have absolutely no role at all in driving the vehicle. They're purely passengers. The vehicle does everything.
GLINTON: How big of a deal is this for a company like Ford?
STEVENS: It's one of the biggest deals in the history of the automobile. And this is a vehicle that we're building to drive itself. In fact, we're not even going to have a steering wheel and pedals in it when we go to production.
GLINTON: Stevens says you won't be able to buy one of these. Ford will be using them as ride-sharing vehicles. But don't let them confuse you. It's still not a full-on self-driving car because it can't go on any road at any speed. But it's real close.
WILLIAM CHERGOSKY: There's a lot of hyperbole around the industry right now. You know, we're still waiting for our flying cars from the '60s, right?
GLINTON: William Chergosky is chief interior designer with Toyota's CALTY team. Toyota has a concept car. It will be a driverless vehicle when it's made in 2030. Chergosky says Toyota is working to develop an experience that will make passengers feel comfortable. He says Toyota is in no hurry to bring out a driverless car or to offer autonomous features early.
CHERGOSKY: Autonomous driving is coming, right? And the way that you do it responsibly - I think it's very important that we all understand what the possibilities are, what the reality is and what it can possibly do for us.
GLINTON: And whether it's autonomous vehicles or self-driving cars, both of those things are likely to be on our roads much sooner than you or I think. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.