Autonomous cars were once again in the spotlight recently with the unveiling of Google’s self-driving prototype, 200 of which the tech giant plans on putting through a test program starting this summer. Being cautious, early versions of the vehicles will still have manual controls, enabling test drivers to override the automated systems. Most of these two-seater cars, however, will be fully autonomous, reports the Los Angeles Times (May 28, 2014), sporting only a stop and start button and a screen to show where the car is going — no steering wheel and no gas or brake pedals.

Self-driving elements have been added to production cars on an incremental basis for some time. Consider driver-assistance systems such as collision-avoidance braking systems, blind-spot detection, and lane-departure warnings. Observers hail Google’s autonomous vehicles as a big step forward as it catapults ahead of traditional auto manufacturers by eschewing their piecemeal approach. Google is seen not as a future auto manufacturer itself, but rather as a software provider, controlling the information that enables autonomous cars to operate.

This technology has obvious military applications, and the army has been no slouch in pursuing its own research. The U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center (TARDEC) along with Lockheed Martin this past June successfully demonstrated a driverless convoy with seven trucks at speeds up to 40 mph using an Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS). The AMAS kit uses GPS, light detecting radar systems, automotive radar, and commercially available automotive sensors to keep the systems affordable. The goal is to transform ordinary vehicles into optionally manned vehicles and to make this capability available by 2020. “The driverless vehicle is coming in both commercial and military applications,” said Bernard Theisen, TARDEC’s AMAS technical manager. “The army is at the forefront of this technology.”

There is no argument that autonomous cars are coming. The question is: when? Opinions differ. Automakers will continue to add further levels of automation to their products. However, in the most likely scenario fully autonomous cars (those that require no driver involvement) are not expected to be on the roads even by 2030 according to a study by Lux Research, whose most optimistic scenario foresees 250,000 units sold in 2030. A study by IHS Automotive, on the other hand, estimates worldwide sales of fully autonomous cars will reach 4.8 million by 2035 and predicts that after 2050 nearly all vehicles in use will be self-driving.

As self-driving cars become more common, their impact on individuals and society will be far reaching — and sometimesin unexpected ways. For example, The Car Connection asks whether autonomous cars will destroy city budgets. It suggests that cities would lose the roughly $6.2 billion in speeding fines generated in the United States each year in addition to penalties for other moving violations. The greatest impact will probably be on safety. Observers foresee accident rates plummeting to near zero once human error — the cause of the vast majority of wrecks — is eliminated.