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Former General Motors R&D chief says self-driving cars will be on sale by 2020

Steve Mahan drives Google car

Mar. 28, 2012: Steve Mahan, a blind man who is head of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, "drove" along a specially programmed route thanks to Google tech.YouTube / Google

Self-driving cars are on the way, and they’re approaching quickly.

So says the former head of Research and Development at General Motors, Larry Burns, who expects to see autonomous vehicles in showrooms in less than 10 years, according to Automotive News.

"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," he said.

Burns told attendees of the University of Michigan Robotics Day that competition among automakers is driving the technology, but that political pushback remains a stumbling block.

"We're going to have to have policies and laws to figure out whose liable when driving this car," the recently inducted member of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering said.

Burns notes that many of the safety features incorporated into autonomous cars, including adaptive cruise control, forward collision avoidance systems and lane-keeping assistance, are already on the road and will soon be commonplace. The upcoming 2014 Chevrolet Impala, for instance, will offer all of the above as optional features.

Google has already tested a fleet of driverless Toyota Prius hybrids outfitted with radars, cameras and GPS systems over thousands of miles of California roads without incident, except for one caused by driver error. Burns has cooperated with the tech giant on the project.

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. Hopefully this picture will motivate people to build on it, but it's a great opportunity," Burns said.

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