The self-drifting car: taking a BMW to the limit in Las Vegas

BMW CES 2014

Self-driving cars aren't supposed to make you puke, are they?

A couple laps in BMW's latest autonomous driving demo, taking place here at CES this week, are all it took to get me feeling a little woozy. And there's a good reason for that: the car was whipping itself around an infield road track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at the very outer limits of its capabilities, guided only be its own high-resolution GPS and the usual array of sensors found on every automakers' self-driving cars.

There's method to BMW's madness

As thrilling and entertaining as the ride was, there's actually method to BMW's madness. The company notes that self-driving systems won't really be ready for prime time until they're able to handle all road situations — including emergency maneuvers, the kinds of extreme turns that test the car's ability to keep traveling in a straight line.

And so, yes, that's how I ended up with my stomach in my throat, drifting a beautiful 6 Gran Coupe around a curve. The asphalt was even hosed down with water just to make things a little more interesting (as if they weren't interesting enough already). It's the exact opposite of the stereotypical Google self-driving Prius plodding down a sunny California interstate at a reasonable speed.

The demonstration was an exclamation point that researchers in the auto industry are starting to get a handle on making self-driving cars practical (and safe) in even non-optimal driving conditions, but there's still lots of work to do: BMW researchers programmed the car specifically to navigate this track. That's a lot different from driving onto a highway on-ramp and hitting a patch of black ice.

Hold tight for a few years if you want a totally automated car

That's part of the explanation why BMW — like virtually all automakers — says that fully automated cars are still years away. Werner Huber, who leads BMW's automated driving efforts, says that 2020 is a reasonable estimate. In the meantime, we've got a $75,000 sedan screaming around a track that looks like it's pulled straight out of Project Gotham Racing, and I'm totally okay with that.

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