Self-driving vehicles, once thought to be a thing far in the future, will be available by 2020, according to the former head of research and development at General Motors, Larry Burns.

Speaking at the University of Michigan Robotics Day, Burns relayed a vision in which shared fleets of driverless vehicles will transport people to and from their destinations while they use their time as desired.

On arrival at the destination, the vehicle would then be sent to another, close location to serve someone else.

Burns said the vision allows for fewer, lighter vehicles in cities, no crashes, lower emissions, and greater time spent doing necessary or enjoyed activities.


"Most people spend 60-90 minutes in the car a day," he said. "If we could give that time back to them, that would be very valuable.

"We're talking enormous opportunity and self-driving vehicles are going to make that possible. It's rethinking the entire system of mobility."

Burns has shared his research with Google, which has logged thousands of miles testing self-driving cars on public roads.

Google has been experimenting with autonomous cars for years in California with a fleet of six driverless Toyota Prius models and an Audi TT.

The vehicles have radar and video cameras that locate the car's position on the map and watch for stop lights and obstacles.

Google says it has put the vehicles through 160,000km of testing in California, plus another 220,000km with occasional human involvement.

While testing, vehicle control can be overridden by a real driver. The only accident during the test programme occurred when a car steered by a person rear-ended a test vehicle that was stopped at a red light.

GM also demonstrated the potential of autonomous driving in 2007 when a self-driving Chevrolet Tahoe SUV nicknamed Boss won a 90km race sponsored by the US Government's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The SUV manoeuvred the streets of Victorville, California, using a drive on own by 2020the way to reality tests go well

Global-positioning satellites help keep driverless cars on the straight and narrow.

collection of cameras, sensors, radar and global-positioning satellites.

Burns says he sees self-driving cars by 2020 with many features of such a vehicle available on most cars by 2015, including adaptive cruise control, forward collision avoidance systems and lane-keeping assistance, which senses when a vehicle strays out of its lane and applies a small amount of force to correct steering.

"By 2015 we're going to have auto companies selling features that are akin to cruise control on steroids," he said. "We're in this five to 10-year window when it's going to be really exciting ... By 2020 we'll have self- driving cars."

Nevada was the first state to issue rules on self-driving cars, which currently require two people to always be on board and puts ultimate responsibility for proper operation in the hands of the humans.

Nevertheless, Burns sees a day when true driverless cars with no one on board will be shuttling about servicing many passengers over the course of a day, rather than sitting around for hours parked and waiting for their owner. "We're not going to go from driving our cars to not driving our cars overnight, it's going to be a gradual transition."