TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Google’s experimental self-driving car features clunky sensor equipment on the roof. Don’t expect anything like that on a General Motors vehicle.

Yes, GM is developing an autonomous car and the advanced technology that goes with it. But whenever it comes, the final product won’t look like a science project with things sticking out of it.

“As a practical matter, our design engineers are very sensitive about what goes on a vehicle,” John Capp, GM’s director-electrical and control systems research, says at the Management Briefing Seminars here. 

So ultimately, GM’s autonomous cars will look like any other vehicles. They’ll be anything but, because of their ability to operate on their own.

Demonstration vehicles such as Google’s serve a purpose. “They show people these things can really happen,” Capp says. “They’ve also created a lot of hype. Some people think cars will take over the driving in a couple years.”

Those folks should hold their horses. Autonomous vehicles aren’t that imminent. The auto industry isn’t confident enough to put them on the market anytime soon.

Existing technologies such as adaptive cruise control and active emergency braking using sensors, cameras and radar are on cars today and will join other sophisticated equipment on tomorrow’s self-driving vehicles.

But system improvements are needed first, Capp says. “Sensors will have to get better and more sensitive to things like weather and various driving circumstances. GPS must get better to detect precisely where a vehicle is.”

Also required is 360-degree sensing and advanced algorithms to determine what’s around the corner.

“These are things that need to happen,” Capp says. “The technology we have today isn’t capable of making the promise that a person can check out and let the car do it all.”

He adds: “It will require a lot of work to achieve the reliability that’s required for an autonomous car to operate under different driving systems. The last thing we want to do is bring technologies to market with unintended consequences.”

But GM is getting there, albeit not as fast as some impatient toe-tappers would like.

Among the automaker’s advancements is Super Cruise, a semi-automated driving system. It is advancing to the next stage of development, including hands-free driving trials on freeways with clear lane markings.

GM says the technology could make its way into production models later this decade. “The driver is still very much engaged but can enjoy the benefits of a relaxed drive,” Capp says.

He notes the idea of self-driving cars is not new. In the 1950s, GM built automated concept cars relying on radar.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com