John Leonard watched spellbound from the back seat as the Lexus he was riding in drove through downtown Mountain View, Calif., one July day. The steering wheel spun right and left without a driver touching it. The car stopped at lights, switched lanes and even punched its accelerator as it merged into traffic.
For Leonard, a roboticist at MIT, riding in a car outfitted with Google’s self-driving technology reminded him of another iconic moment in transportation: when the Wright brothers ushered in the age of air travel 111 years ago. “Honestly,” he says, “I felt like I was on the beach at Kitty Hawk.”
In 2014, it became more credible than ever that all cars will drive themselves someday. Google began building 100 more prototypes over the summer — this time, without steering wheels — and several mainstream car manufacturers, including BMW and Audi, demonstrated their own self-driving prototypes.