So many cars, so little time. The North American International Auto Show, better known as the Detroit Auto Show is perhaps the world’s best known automotive expo. Every year, media from all over the globe gather to peek at the latest models being presented from brands the world over. Every show is special in its own way and once it’s all said and done, and all the cars, trucks and SUVs have been shown, the trends become clear.

We’ve seen them all, big trucks, gas guzzlers, everything electric, small cars galore following the recession and this year it was no different. There was indeed an elephant roaming around Cobo hall and it was named… Autonomous.

Autonomous or Semi-Autonomous?

When you think about it, many cars on the road today have semi-autonomous capabilities with features that won’t take you to your destination hands-off but that will make your commute safer for sure. Starting with adaptive cruise control and lane keeping technologies, many cars on the road nowadays can “drive” themselves on the highway by maintaining continuous speed, distance from the car in front and staying within their lane. This doesn’t require super computers but it’s a necessary component in evolving to complete autonomy. However, there is a catch.

I’ve been asked many times, do you think that autonomous cars will be feasible at a dealership, after all, the cost of all the necessary sensors and computers might send the price on an uphill climb. My answer is simple: Give it time.

It’s all about the sensors

Lidar Sensor from Velodyne

Lidar sensor from Velodyne

The most important sensor in an autonomous car is the LiDAR, short for Light Imaging Detection and Ranging. Basically, this gadget uses a laser to measures the distance of objects surrounding the vehicle. This is basically the robot vision that’s needed to operate safely on the roads. This sensor has dramatically dropped in price going from over $70,000 when it was first developed to $8,000 for its current spinning mechanical model, to a new solid state chip announced this past December that costs $50 when manufactured in mass. That’s what I call a price drop!

With this latest price drop, no wonder many of the automakers announced their self-driving auto projects will hit the road in the next few years. The list is getting bigger and bigger. Waymo, the newly spun company from Google brought their self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivan, with technologies that they plan to license to automakers to turn their models into self-driving “powered by Google” cars. If they follow the model they used with Android, they are going to be hard to beat.

Almost all manufacturers are all-in

Other manufacturers offered their vision of the future like Toyota with its Concept-i presented earlier at CES that not only drives itself but has an artificial intelligence assistant. Ford showed their autonomous Fusion Hybrid along with their concept of the city of the future. This car is at the heart of the Uber self-driving vehicle program being tested in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. The BMW Group also partnered with Intel and the Israeli company Mobileye to demonstrate their autonomous Series 7 which was part of an announcement earlier in the year that they plan to deploy a fleet of 40 of these bad boys on the streets to showcase how safe the technology is.

The race is on. The autonomous cars are coming whether we like it or not and we have to brace for impact. Many industries will be affected and the streets of the world will look different once again with cars, buses and trucks that don’t have anyone at the wheel. I’m not sure we are ready but it’s definitely inevitable.