The Big Idea: On the road with autonomous cars

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Driverless cars seem like they're still a far way down the road in the future, but in many ways they are already here. And what about the legal potholes they present? Fox 5 looks into this topic in the Big Idea.

65 miles an hour down the Garden State Parkway and the car was doing the driving. We tested a brand-new Mercedes GLE Coupe outfitted with what the company calls Distronic Plus with Steering Assist. In short, this car will come pretty close to driving you down the road. The folks at Mercedes let us take it for a spin in Bergen County.

It kept a set distance from the car in front, it followed the markings on either side of the lane and it steered the car, without my control.

This semi-autonomous cruise control does much more than let me select a speed. Equipped with cameras all around the car and also radar, I told the car how much distance to keep from the vehicle ahead.

Too much hands-free driving and the car let me know. I did have my hands nearby but it told me to put my hands back on the wheel even though it negotiated curves on its own.

Bart Herring of Mercedes-Benz says that the human is always the best safety element. Mercedes says safety is what's steering its drive toward the big idea of a driverless car which might not be as far away as you think. Herring says we'll see a fully autonomous vehicle toward the end of the decade.

Tesla's summon feature lets you move the car forward or backward standing outside with a couple of clicks on the key fob -- perfect for pulling in or out of tight spaces. It's just the latest way a Tesla will almost drive itself.

Tesla rolled out what it calls "autopilot" -- its version of a semi-autonomous cruise control through a software update last fall. The car reads the lines in the road. It wants you to keep your hands on the steering wheel. The company says just like an airplane though, it still requires a pilot.

On our test drive, autopilot kept the Tesla in lane at highway speeds and also worked well in stop-and-go traffic. The system shows you other vehicles on your dashboard display and even reads the speed limit signs with the forward-facing cameras.

So just how much should we let cars take over the driver's seat? Most states have no laws on the books. Some, in fact, are going out of their way -- repainting roads, providing high-resolution maps -- trying to make it easier for companies to test driverless cars.

New York, though, is an exception. The law says a person must have at least one hand on the wheel at all times.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently told Google -- whose driverless car got in an accident -- that while it still has a lot of questions, it would consider the car itself to be classified as the driver.

But while we wait for all the legal questions to be sorted out, at least these cars can parallel park for us.

The Tesla and Mercedes that we test drove are available for purchase.

CLICK HERE to see more from Ben's test drives.