Our vision of the future often includes flying cars, which exist today but are many years away from widespread use. Another form of high-tech transportation often seen in science fiction films, however, may be a lot closer to reality -- the automated car.

Google already has a fleet of computer-controlled vehicles cruising the nation's roads that, for now, have humans along for the ride in case of malfunctions. Now, Ford Motor Co., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University are teaming up to develop vehicles that put more auto in automobile.

Addressing Challenges

Following up the recent release of an automated version of its Ford Fusion hybrid Relevant Products/Services, the automotive giant on Wednesday said the university partnership will explore the long-term "societal, legislative and technological issues" posed by self-driving cars.

"Working with university partners like MIT and Stanford enables us to address some of the longer-term challenges surrounding automated driving while exploring more near-term solutions for delivering an even safer and more efficient driving experience," said Paul Mascarenas, Ford's chief technical officer and vice president of research and innovation.

Rob Enderle, principal analyst at The Enderle Group, said that rather than fear robocars, we should embrace them. After all, they won't get caught texting, playing with the radio or eating breakfast during the morning commute. And they don't drink.

"In most cases the automated car will outperform people," said Enderle. "They don’t get distracted, they’ll be able to more accurately choose between breaking and avoidance, and they won’t do stupid things ... that cause accidents."

Right now, Enderle said the biggest problem with robocars is that they immediately disengage from control when they encounter a problem and hand control over to a human.

"That driver may be dosing, drunk, texting, watching a movie etc., and that likely won’t end well," he warned. "In addition they work better when connected and while they’ll likely deal with crazy drivers better than humans, the unconnected car will still represent a risk"

Ford's existing Fusion Hybrid research vehicle is just like those in current showrooms, but uses four LiDAR sensors to generate a 3D map of its surroundings.

Peeking Around Corners

MIT is developing advanced algorithms to help the onboard computer predict the motion of other vehicles and pedestrians. Stanford's crew will help Ford work out the kinks of obstacles such as big trucks that can obscure the view ahead and potential risks. Ideally, the computer should be able to determine whether it's safe to change lanes if the truck stops short.

"Our goal is to provide the vehicle with common sense," said Greg Stevens, global manager for driver assistance and active safety, Ford research and innovation. "Drivers are good at using the cues around them to predict what will happen next, and they know that what you can't see is often as important as what you can see. Our goal in working with MIT and Stanford is to bring a similar type of intuition to the vehicle."