Your car drives you home while a drone delivers the latest microbrew to your doorstep: It could happen. The idea for driverless cars dates back to the Roaring Twenties, when the radio-controlled Linrrican Wonder negotiated Manhattan’s busy Fifth Avenue. By 1995 a humanless Mercedes-Benz S-Class car had traveled 990 miles through Europe, sometimes at 109 miles an hour.
Three years ago Google unveiled a robotic car with an eyelike GPS camera mounted on the roof. By 2014 Google had dozens of driverless prototypes in its clandestine X lab. The vehicles, nicknamed Firefly, use a combination of laser and radar sensors, cameras and GPS to navigate via highly detailed Google Maps, which provide the system with everything from directions to specifics regarding stop signs and curb height. California law now allows the vehicles on its roads for test-driving, but challenges remain: If a stoplight hasn’t been mapped, Google’s driverless car could miss it.
Engineers will figure it out. Pundits predict 75 percent of cars will be driverless by 2040, and Google claims the cars could eventually cut vehicle-related deaths in half. True, autopilot may be a few years off, but many of the world’s car companies plan to include driver-assist technology to reduce accidents—this year. When fully driverless cars do arrive, experts say they’ll be so safe you’ll sleep peacefully behind the wheel.
Unlike driverless cars, personal drones are already here. Amazon and Google hype their delivery drones for bringing stuff to your home. Jeff Bezos hopes Amazon’s fleet will deliver to your door within 30 minutes after you place an order. While the FAA considers regulations, drones are already being used to take wedding videos, help paparazzi spy and film such blockbusters as Skyfall. Want your own? Ready-to-fly models such as the IRIS+ now cost under $800, and prices will likely drop. As many as 1,500 different models are being made to accommodate the needs of detectives, oceanographers, real estate agents and would-be pilots. Soon to come: Nixie, a tiny wearable model you launch from your wrist.