This week Google unveiled its first car, a prototype autonomous vehicle devoid of a steering wheel and brakes yet capable of transporting passengers at speeds of up to 25 mph. Like most fully autonomous cars, Google’s prototype can only travel on pre-set routes but the plan is to eventually have the cars take its occupants to any given location around town.

Google has received a lot of attention for its autonomous car development, likely because of its size and progress in the area as well as the fact that it's one of the key players outside the auto industry working on the technology. However, that doesn’t mean the major automakers are behind the curve.

One of the leaders is Mercedes-Benz, which was the first automaker to launch a car with autonomous steering capability in the form of its 2014 S-Class sedan. But this is just the start as Mercedes is working on a fully autonomous car, just like Google, and even presented its own prototype last year.

The prototype, called the S500 INTELLIGENT DRIVE, was the first car in history to conduct a fully autonomous road trip. It traveled the roughly 60 miles between Mannheim and Pforzheim in Germany, retracing a route taken by motoring pioneer Bertha Benz more than 125 years ago when she set off on the world’s first long-distance drive.

Mercedes hopes to have the system ready for production by 2020, the same year another automaker, Nissan, hopes to have its own fully autonomous technology ready for sale. What’s still needed are complex maps that the autonomous car can use to guide its way, using information such as the number and direction of traffic lanes and traffic signs as well as the positions of traffic lights. Digital maps of this kind are a key prerequisite for autonomous driving, Mercedes says. Then of course there’s the legislative environment to deal with, which could ultimately prove the hardest hurdle to cross.


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