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Previous USAToday Columns

December 3, 2015
Can Apple continue to shine?

November 11, 2015
Tablet vs. PC? Tim Cook aside, consumers really don't care

October 28, 2015
Apple's biggest threat could be...Apple

October 15, 2015
Is it time to upgrade your PC?

October 5, 2015
Microsoft's next smartphone may extend Windows 10 features, like iris scans

September 24, 2015
Is the auto industry ripe for disruption?

September 10, 2015
The next version of Apple? It’s all about services

September 1, 2015
A fresh look at PCs

August 10, 2015
The future of cars is smart, not autonomous

July 23, 2015
The Personal Value of IOT is All About Connections

July 3, 2015
Over your PC monitor? These changes will surprise you

June 18, 2015
Passwords must die

June 4, 2015
The best new tech is invisible

May 13, 2015
The Battle for the Living Room

April 30, 2015
The new platform wars

April 15, 2015
Is Apple now a Gen 2 product company?

April 2, 2015
Smartwatches: The New Smartphones Jr?

March 19, 2015
Microsoft Windows: Not dead yet

March 5, 2015
MWC 2015: It was all about connected wearables

February 11, 2015
High tech and the laggard effect

anuary 29, 2015
Microsoft Hololens and the evolution of computing

January 15, 2015
Commentary: Tech device diversity set to explode with IoT

2014 USAToday Columns

USAToday Column

December 17, 2015
For self-driving cars, biggest changes are a decade away

By Bob O'Donnell

FOSTER CITY, Calif. — The visions are pretty compelling.

Cars that can safely and automatically transport us anywhere, all the while keeping us connected, informed, and entertained. Even better, some of them can do so in an extremely stylish fashion.

We’ve even got some early examples of advanced automobile tech features and future prototypes, and heard lots of promises of what’s to come. It’s enough to make you think that completely smart, connected, autonomous cars are practically here.

The reality, however, isn’t quite that simple. Sure, there have been many tremendous advancements in car tech, and at the upcoming CES Show in Las Vegas in early January, we’re bound to hear a lot more. In fact, two of the big keynote speeches are coming from car companies (GM and Volkswagen). But many of the big picture changes being trumpeted are still likely at least a decade away from mainstream usage, and in some cases longer.

That completely autonomous, always connected electric vehicle that frees you from the hassles of your morning commute and notifies you where the closest open parking spot is next to your destination? Don’t hold your breath just yet.

In the meantime, we’ll start to see important steps that march us towards those goals. In-car connectivity has already become nearly standard, and assisted driving features such as lane departure warnings and automatic braking are growing increasingly sophisticated. Thanks to recent changes by the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA), which plans to require the inclusion of certain assisted driving features in order for car makers to garner the highly coveted 5-star safety ratings, these features are also going to become much more common.

We’re also going to continue to see more advancements on the in-car experience front—from entertainment to mapping to improved information on how the car is operating, and much more. Many of the more high-profile battles in automotive tech, such as between Apple, Google and the major car makers, will be playing out in these spaces for several years to come.

As for more autonomous driving, we’ll continue to see important improvements, but NHTSA’s five levels of requirements for autonomous driving are going to be very difficult to fulfill in the near term. Specifically, Level 3 (the standards actually go from 0 to 4), or Limited Self-Driving Automation, which enables modes where the car actually takes over the driving experience in a variety of different situations—city streets, highway, etc.—requires an enormous amount of work. Not only does the car need to interpret the situation and environment outside, but inside as well. Knowing whether or not the driver is able to take back over, if necessary, for example, is very challenging.

Even with the technology in place, there are still going to be some big hurdles to overcome with regard to standards, reliability, and security. The requirements for automotive applications are significantly higher than for tech projects. Plus, there are the psychological barriers that need to be overcome. Americans are very connected with our cars and giving up control isn’t something that will come easily for many.

Regardless of exactly how all these developments play out, the good news, as a car enthusiast, is that cars are hot again. As a result, nearly everyone, it seems, wants to get in on the action. In fact, the Consumer Electronics Association —the organization that puts on the CES show—just took the unprecedented step of renaming themselves as the Consumer Technology Association, in large part because of the desire to fully embrace today’s advanced cars and other products that don’t typically qualify as simply “electronics.”

The end result is that we’re going to see unprecedented levels of focus on cars and auto technology moving forward. From that will come some amazing vehicles and a new opportunity to fall in love with cars all over again.

USA TODAY columnist Bob O'Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell and Nvidia. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

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