Cars that are completely capable of driving themselves are a phenomenon of the future. However, there's a great deal they can do without a driver right now, as our Motoring Editor, Donal Byrne, discovered when a car drove him and not the other way round.

Gill Pratt, whose field is electrical engineering and computer science, likes to show a slide of a photograph of a New York streetscape in 1905. Amid the sepia procession of horse-drawn cabs and carriages, there's hard-to-spot car in the middle of the crowded thoroughfare - a great rarity at the time.

Dr Gill then moves to his next slide of the same streetscape taken eight years later. Now we see the same crowded thoroughfare with a very hard-to-spot horse-drawn cab in a sea of cars.

Eight years is all it took to virtually complete the transformation of a city like to New York and its predominant choice of street transport from a city of horses to a city of cars.

Dr. Gill does not live in the past, however. In fact, he spends most of his working life in the future - a future in which cars will never be involved in a crash, regardless of what the driver does. As CEO of Toyota's Research Institute, he is not alone.

Almost every big car company has a Dr. Gill Pratt - perhaps several of them - beavering away in their search for the Holy Grail of car production - fully autonomous cars that drive themselves everywhere and in every environment and will never crash or cause death or even injury.

Billions of dollars are being invested in this research and it is incredibly complicated, so much so that Dr. Gill won't even offer an educated guess as to when fully autonomous driving will become commonplace. That is not to say you can't travel in a car today that is capable of driving itself. That's exactly what I ended up doing this week during a visit to Toyota's European research headquarters.

The car may have looked like a Lexus but the battery of cameras, sensors and radar affixed to it made it look like it had been put together in someone's workshop which, of course, it was. Inside the car is crammed with screens that reflect what the cameras, sensors and radar are gathering from their surroundings all the time.

The camera-laden Lexus that drives itself.
The camera-laden Lexus that drives itself.

So, in the back seating areas, there are screens with colour coding - they don't look like anything but they represent objects outside - cars, lane markings, pedestrians, road signs and so on. Decode the colours and you are getting a 360-degree view of everything that is outside the car - moving or static.

The affable and enthusiastic engineer was happy to share the knowledge he and his team have garnered but you daren't take a photograph because of the commercially sensitive nature of that work. So, we lined ourselves up in a straight line on a stretch of test track that is marked like a normal road with lane markings and speed limit and other traffic signs.

As we moved off to our programmed speed it was had not to take your eyes off the engineer's hands and feet. His hands were not on the steering wheel and his feet were not on the pedals. He was really only there to take over if something went wrong. It didn't.

We moved up to our cruising speed of 100 kilometres an hour. The Lexus purred and drove in a perfect line until it read to the lane markings and turned left and then right - just like it would if someone had been driving it. There was no drama, no jerky movements and nothing that might unnerve one. At the moment, Toyota is developing parallel systems allow the car to drive itself and also allows the driver to take over.

Take a drive in the car that drives itself.

So,  here I was - in the future. At some point we will all have the same experience and, ultimately, it may be our only driving experience because there won't be a need for fallible humans to drive at all. We should also see the enormous drop in road fatalities around the world from the current figure of 1.3 million per annum to a theoretical zero. But that is in the future. Much, much work has to be done to get artificial intelligence to replicate human behaviour, 

"Car accidents happen suddenly. Most driving is easy but some is very hard. Driving and pedestrian behaviour are very different in Tokyo, Rome and Bejing. It is very hard right now to predict human behaviour. Instinctive behaviour is very different from sitting at a desk and trying to figure out a problem. The bar is set very high because people will be very unforgiving if a machine makes a mistake. We don't have the perfect way yet", says Dr. Pratt. 

Other Toyota cars we drove are more of the moment and will offer autonomous technology within three years. We drove at a "wall" at 40 KPH and the car stopped dead. It would not crash into the "wall" at that speed no matter what I did.  

We drove at a "pedestrian". The car detected the "person" and identified it as such. It swerved to avoid the "person" (a realistic-looking dummy out for a stroll) and stopped dead. The dummy was unscathed.

Without going into a complicated explanation of the different levels of autonomous driving, these are the kind of technology features that are going to be on all cars in the not too distant future.

Already Toyota has fitted City Safe accident prevention systems in most of its popular models, including the least expensive. We will see and more of this technology coming fast - Toyota is not even the industry leader here - but in the meantime, the experts have to work out what happens when the car decides to swerve to avoid that pedestrian dummy.  Does it save the pedestrian at the expense of the safety of the driver or passengers in the swerving car?