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The Big Future: Will cars ever drive themselves?

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Self-driving cars still feel like a sci-fi technology, decades away from reality — but you'd be surprised. A lot of the things we need to put them on the road already exist, and the rest is just around the corner. In this week's Big Future, we look at just how close we are to a computer-controlled highway, driven less by the human mind and more by 0s and 1s.

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Really, self-driving cars are already all around you

"Self-driving" isn't a single gadget, chip, or piece of software installed in a car; it's an entire array of sensors and computers that monitor the environment and make sure that your ride gets safely from point A to point B. Many of those components are already in production cars, and have been for years: take dynamic cruise control, for instance, which uses radar to look for cars ahead of you and automatically keeps a safe distance. In some cars, cameras on the windshield can look for lane markers and warn you when you're not staying within them.

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And they're about to get smarter

In a matter of months, Tesla will be rolling out software updates for its Model S that allow it to drive itself on highways. On private roads, it'll even be able to pick you up in the morning on a schedule of your choosing and park itself in a garage at night. 2017's Cadillacs will offer something called "Super Cruise," which is basically the same thing. About all that's left before we've got fully autonomous cars is dealing with inclement weather and figuring out how to safely drive on surface streets in all situations. (Research projects like Google's self-driving car are getting close.)

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Why do cars even have to look like cars?

Most of what we know about the design of the modern automobile is based on the assumption that we actually have to drive it ourselves. If we — us human beings, that is — get taken out of the equation, cars can look like just about anything. Why not maximize space, or get rid of the windows so it's easier to take a nap? A century from now, our high-tech rides might be unrecognizable.