Hongqi HQ3 sedan

Hongqi HQ3 sedan

Over the past couple of years, autonomous cars have shifted gears: once considered a novelty act akin to life-size remote-controlled vehicles, there's recently been serious talk about using autonomous cars for everyday transportation. And as one of the world's biggest auto markets, China isn't about to be left out of the discussion.

So far, Google has dominated the autonomous car conversation with its high-profile fleet of self-driving Priuses (Prii, if you must). But China has an entrant, too: researchers at the country's National University of Defense Technology partnered with First Auto Works to trick out a Hongqui-brand sedan with all the necessary tools for driverless transit.

Well, almost. The vehicle has plenty of cameras and other sensors to keep it in line with traffic, and according to reports, its onboard computer can react about 12 times faster to road conditions than a human driver could (40 milliseconds on average, compared to 500 milliseconds for a human). But the Chinese vehicle doesn't use GPS at all, which would seem to spell trouble if it were to ever get lost. And weirder still, it has no ability to work in the dark, meaning that travel is limited to daylight hours.

Despite those hindrances, though, China's autonomous vehicle recently made a 154-mile road trip -- in inclement weather, no less -- in just three hours and 20 minutes. And it managed to do so while maintaining an average speed of 54 miles per hour, overtaking some 67 other vehicles being driven by carbon-based life forms. Not too shabby.

The future is...now?

All in all, many of these road tests of autonomous vehicles look promising. Audi raced to the top of Pike's peak without incident; the only major kerfuffle involving Google's autonomous cars was while a lowly human was driving; and now, these developments from China. 

Nearly all of us expected driving to get safer and simpler in our lifetimes -- mostly thanks to better technology, like collision-avoidance and V2V -- but few entertained the thought that we might actually see the dawn of computerized chauffeurs. The technology is still decades away from widespread implementation, but it's there on the horizon, isn't it? Or is it?

[GreenCarReports, Cnet]