Friday, June 7, 2013 — A few months ago I wrote about how research is being done that will allow cars to drive themselves someday soon.
Little did I know how quickly autonomous cars would hit the market, though.
Recently, I drove the 2014 RLX, Acura's new flagship sedan that can, in the right situations, completely drive itself — braking, accelerating and even steering without human input.
Granted, it's limited in scope and thus not the driverless car of science fiction lore, but it's the closest thing I've experienced to date. And it's already reality, available at any Acura dealer to customers who can afford the $12,000 premium that the Advance Package adds to the base $48,450 RLX.
First, some background.
The RLX is the replacement for Acura's nearly irrelevant RL luxury sedan, which sold just a few hundred copies last year. While it was a good value by luxury-brand standards, the RL was seen as too small and too bland to get noticed by the end of its lifespan.
The new RLX is designed to fix all that. It starts with a much bigger footprint, making it significantly longer and wider than the RL was, along with more contemporary styling. What Acura calls a "Jewel Eye" headlight design makes it particularly distinctive on the front end.
While the look and size are big improvements, the overall driving feel still doesn't stand out in this class. Its V6 engine makes 310 horsepower — powerful, but not over-the-top powerful — and its suspension has a nice mix of sportiness and comfort.
As a whole, it's got a middle-of-the-road driving feel, having neither the sumptuous smoothness of a Lexus nor the thrill of a BMW. It seems to be a safe, predictable choice for the Acura brand.
Where it really excels is in technology, though. You'd have to visit an Acura dealer to get the full rundown, but features like rear-wheel steering, in-car e-mail and a computerized dash layout with acres of high-resolution LCD displays make the car look like something out of a sci-fi movie set.
The big breakthrough is that it essentially drives itself, in a limited fashion.
It starts with a particularly refined version of adaptive cruise control, which uses radar to keep your car a set distance from the car in front of you. You'll automatically speed up, slow down and even come to a complete stop if necessary, all without driver input.
That's cool, but it's hardly revolutionary.
Acura's "Lane Keeping Assist System" is more innovative. It uses a camera to see the stripes in the road and will gently nudge the steering wheel left and right to keep your car centered in the lane.
If you're adventurous, you can take your hands off the wheel and let the car steer itself, even around gentle curves, for up to 15 seconds or so. If it senses you're not providing any steering input after that, the system will shut itself down as a safety measure.
As long as the road is clearly striped and you keep your hands very gently resting on the steering wheel, though, the car can essentially drive itself indefinitely. It's remarkable.
In fact, it's the most serene experience I've ever had driving in stop-and-go, rush-hour traffic. Turn on the RLX's adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping system, and you can basically relax while the car does the work — starting and stopping with traffic and keeping itself in the lane.
Even for someone who loves to drive, it's nice having the option not to do so occasionally.
Derek Price is an automotive columnist for CNHI News Service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.