Teresa Favuzzi is a good driver; it’s every­one else around her who is a maniac. Favuzzi’s partner is legally blind, so the 54-year-old independent-­living director from Sacramento, Calif., is used to taking the wheel of the family car. She makes full stops at stop signs, obeys speed limits (mostly), and always looks both ways before entering an intersection. The responsibility of being the driver appeals to her, because then she generally knows what the outcome of her journey will be: a safe arrival at her destination.

She doesn’t give up the wheel easily—“I’m a bit of a control freak,” she says—but in May 2015, Favuzzi eagerly accepted an invitation to take a test ride in Google’s prototype self-driving car on a parking garage rooftop of the software giant’s Silicon Valley headquarters. Google has held several demonstration events for journalists and community organizations so that they can learn about, and experience firsthand, Google’s self-driving technology.

The inside of Google’s podlike vehicle is at once familiar and disconcerting. It has two forward-facing seats, seat belts, even cup holders. But there is no steering wheel, brake pedal, or any controls to speak of, save for a “go” button and a big, red emergency “stop” button. Engaging the go button is a leap of faith for any “driver.” After that push, for the length of your journey you are at the mercy of a machine.

But as Favuzzi discovered, it’s a cautious machine, maybe even more cautious than she is. The vehicle stopped for pedestrians, bicyclists, other cars, and obstacles in the road “almost as well” as she could have driven. The car was calm, courteous, patient . . . careful to a fault, even. Favuzzi got used to the experience in a hurry, and never once had that panicked-passenger feeling. You know the one, where you smash your foot into the car’s firewall, slamming on an imaginary brake pedal.

Instead, she got out feeling . . . relaxed. She’s now eagerly anticipating a day when she can have a self-driving car of her own, one where she and her partner can chill out, chat, sit back, and enjoy the ride.

But she’ll have to wait a while. The prototype (which still doesn’t have an official name) that shuttled Favuzzi is Google’s vision of the future, a world of cars that use lasers, radar, and cameras—and a significant amount of computer processing power—to “see” the road, and thus remove humans from the task of driving.

It’s a compelling scenario: No texting drivers wandering into adjacent lanes. No aggressive road ragers cutting each other off. No tired, drunk, or just plain confused people in control of 2-ton vehicles. Just computers constantly analyzing the road and traffic conditions, always alert and making the safest, most logical decisions every time.

The fact that Google’s vehicle works at all makes that vision seem tantalizingly within reach. And in some ways it is. Researchers at Google, as well as universities including Carnegie Mellon and Stanford, plus multiple car manufacturers, are working diligently on the technologies necessary to let cars drive themselves. Experts predict that we’ll see some real-world deployments of self-driving car services in select cities within the next few years. Also, many systems are available in cars right now that allow varying degrees of autonomy. Some production cars can even operate on their own for limited durations under specific circumstances.

But it’s a leap of surprising complexity to go from a few sporadic implementations of self-driving technology to a get-in-the-backseat-and-take-a-nap world of robotic cars. In fact, many of the engineers and automotive executives we contacted can’t even agree about a realistic time frame, or what will be necessary in terms of laws and standards. But most do agree that it will take decades to sort it all out and spread full-autopilot technology into dealerships countrywide.

Google Inside?

Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, is on the optimistic end of the spectrum. “My team here is working to make sure my 12-year-old son doesn’t have to get a driver’s license,” he says, “and we believe that.”

Google isn’t looking to become a car manufacturer, though. Rather, the online-­search company wants its software to be the electronic brains of cars built by established automakers.

Many of those automakers are urging patience. Matt Sloustcher, who handles advanced technology communications for Honda, said his company doesn’t have a set date for when “ubiquitous, unmanned operation” will be achievable, but it won’t be anytime soon. “There are many complexities involved from a regulatory, liability, and infrastructural standpoint that are only just starting to be explored.”

How that all rolls out is no small matter. If the move to self-driving vehicles is inevitable, then it will be the single biggest change in the relationship between cars and their passengers since the invention of the motor vehicle itself.

We are talking about letting computers make life-and-death decisions on our behalf, on a mass-scale. Whether it takes two years or 20, it is a transition that requires everybody understanding the basics of self-driving vehicles, and setting realistic expectations about what we can expect from the technology.

Consumer Reports has experienced some of the most advanced features currently on the market at our track in Connecticut, and we’ve also talked with scientists and engineers who are developing the next generation of self-driving technology.

Our goal has been to answer questions about what’s possible, how safe it all will be, and when Teresa Favuzzi—and the rest of us—can realistically expect our cars to take the wheel.

Self-Driving Terms You Should Know

Much of the core technology for self-driving cars is available on cars today. Here’s a guide to the key features and terms:

Autonomous Vehicle: A car capable of sensing its environment and driving itself from point to point without needing input from a driver.

Semiautonomous Vehicle: A car that has limited capabilities, such as being able to steer, accelerate, brake, stop, change lanes, and park itself. The driver will need to stay alert to potential missteps and crisis situations.

Artificial Intelligence: Machines with the ability to learn and make decisions on their own. The question that remains to be asked: Can a learning machine become self-aware?

Forward-Collision Warning: Lasers, radar, or cameras assess the possibility of impact with a vehicle ahead and alert the driver to pay attention. We want this feature to be standard on all vehicles as soon as possible.

Automatic Emergency Braking: Can sense an imminent forward collision and slam on the brakes if you don’t react in time. It’s deus ex machina for the inattentive driver. We want this feature to be standard on all cars as soon as possible.

Lane-Keeping Assist: Induces mild steering input to keep your car in its lane. It works best on straight roads but can be overly intrusive on curvy two-lanes. Advanced versions allow for hands-off moments.

Adaptive Cruise Control: Automatically adjusts your car’s speed to the vehicle ahead; some systems come to a full stop, then start again. You have but one job: steer.

Transportation of the Far, Far-Off Future

Self-driving cars of the future

The Connected Highway
The utopian road—where cars, trucks, buses, bicyclists, pedestrians, and traffic signals all talk to each other through vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication—has been envisioned for decades. Such a plan could virtually eliminate accidents, massively reduce congestion, and improve efficiency. Although a completely connected vehicle fleet will take decades to implement, it doesn’t have to come all at once. Frank Paluch, president of Honda R&D Americas, suggests it could start with a single, dedicated highway lane for automated vehicles, for instance on Interstate 5 in California. Picture cars traveling at speeds of more than 180 mph, inches apart, in perfect uniformity: Los Angeles to San Francisco in about 2 hours.

The End of Car Ownership
A single highway lane for self-driving cars might not be all that far off and is fairly plausible. But eventually, owning a car could be mostly for hobbyists. For car enthusiasts, it’s hard to imagine such a future, but to the pragmatic the concept makes sense. Why spend so much money on an item that, in truth, sits idle the majority of the time? In the future you’ll simply summon the car of your choice to your door, on demand, from a network of self-driving vehicles.

Fly, Don’t Drive
We know, it’s not a car, but it’s hard to ignore the single-­person Autonomous Aerial Vehicle (AAV). The Chinese-­built Ehang 184 self-piloted mini-­helicopter is powered by eight electric motors and can fly for 23 minutes at an average speed of 62 mph before needing a 2- to 4-­hour recharge. It has a 220-­pound load capacity. Although the Federal Aviation Administration will have a field day regulating such a vehicle, Ehang says the drone-­copter will go on sale in China this year for private use for around $250,000. The “Blade Runner” dreamers can envision autonomous helicopters as the potential ride-sharing service of the future.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

From the 'Consumer 101' TV Show

Modern cars can do many things, including helping to steer, keeping you in your lane, and stopping in an emergency—just don’t call them “self-driving” cars in front of this CR expert.