Cars that drive themselves — even parking at their destination — could be ready for sale within a decade, General Motors Corp. executives say.

GM, parts suppliers, university engineers and other automakers all are working on vehicles that could revolutionize short- and long-distance travel. And Tuesday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, GM chief executive Rick Wagoner will devote part of his speech to the driverless vehicles.

"This is not science fiction," Larry Burns, GM's vice-president for research and development, said in a recent interview.

The most significant obstacles facing the vehicles could be human rather than technical: government regulation, liability laws, privacy concerns and people's passion for the automobile and the control it gives them.

Much of the technology already exists for vehicles to take the wheel: radar-based cruise control, motion sensors, lane-change warning devices, electronic stability control and satellite-based digital mapping. And automated vehicles could dramatically improve life on the road, reducing crashes and congestion — if people are interested.

"Now the question is, what does society want to do with it?" Burns said. "You're looking at these issues of congestion, safety, energy and emissions. Technically there should be no reason why we can't transfer to a totally different world."

GM plans to use an inexpensive computer chip and an antenna to link vehicles equipped with driverless technologies. The first use likely would be on highways; people would have the option to choose a driverless mode while they still would control the vehicle on local streets, Burns said.

He said the company plans to test driverless car technology by 2015 and have cars on the road around 2018.

'We might be able to cut [accidents] down by a factor of 50 per cent ... Just imagine all the funerals that won't take place.'—Sebastian Thrun, researcher

Sebastian Thrun, co-leader of the Stanford University team that finished second among six teams completing a 100-kilometre Pentagon-sponsored race of driverless cars in November, said GM's goal is technically attainable. But he said he wasn't confident cars would appear in showrooms within a decade.

"There's some very fundamental, basic regulations in the way of that vision in many countries," said Thrun, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering.

The U.S. Defence Department contest, which initially involved 35 teams, showed the technology isn't ready for prime time. One team was eliminated after its vehicle nearly charged into a building, while another vehicle mysteriously pulled into a house's carport and parked itself.

Thrun said a key benefit of the technology eventually will be safer roads and reducing the roughly 42,000 U.S. traffic deaths that occur annually — 95 per cent of which he said are caused by human mistakes.

"We might be able to cut those numbers down by a factor of 50 per cent," Thrun said. "Just imagine all the funerals that won't take place."

Other challenges include updating vehicle codes and figuring out who would be liable in a crash and how to cope with blown tires or obstacles in the road. But the systems could be developed to tell motorists about road conditions, warn of crashes or stopped vehicles ahead and prevent collisions in intersections.