The auto-parts maker Delphi is behind a 3,500-mile cross-country test drive - from San Francisco to New York - in an autonomous car, a trip intended to push self-driving car technology to its limits.
The itinerary: A team of Delphi engineers leaves California in an Audi SQ5 loaded with special cameras, radar, and software in mid-March hoping to arrive in New York City during the first week of the New York International Auto Show in early April. The car travels six to eight hours each day and is tested by a team of Delphi engineers watching its performance closely.
"Whenever we are on the road, we will always have a driver in the seat," said Jeff Owens, Delphi's vice president and chief technical officer. "It's all about . . . staying alert."
The test drive will give Delphi the opportunity to collect a tremendous amount of data the company says will be invaluable as the industry explores various forms of autonomous vehicles.
The potential for self-driving, or autonomous cars, has tantalized the automotive industry for several years.
Ford CEO Mark Fields predicted in January that an automaker could launch an autonomous car within the next five years. A recent study by the McKinsey consulting firm predicts it will take until about 2025.
Though much of the technology necessary for semiautonomous cars - such as lane-departure systems and adaptive cruise control - already exists, Owens contends it will take 20 years or more before fully autonomous cars are sold to the public.
"We don't have the regulatory environment [necessary] anywhere in the world, and we don't have the legal framework," he said.
But Owens said Delphi wasn't worried about how long it would take for fully autonomous cars to go mainstream, because automakers are already moving full speed ahead with the development and deployment of technology. And, he said, the industry will continue to deploy pieces of the technology improving auto safety.
"If your premise is more safety, you don't have to get to fully autonomous to get there," he said. "You don't have to take the driver out of the seat to do that."
Autonomous-car technology represents huge opportunity for Delphi and other auto suppliers, Owens said. Delphi booked $1.4 billion in sales in 2014 for sensors, cameras, and other active safety systems, and $3 billion over the previous three years.
Delphi's autonomous test car, adapted from an Audi SQ5 crossover, is more advanced than anything on the road today. It can make complex instantaneous decisions, such as stopping and proceeding at a four-way stop, timing a highway merge, or calculating the safest maneuver around a bicyclist on a city street.
Other automakers are experimenting as well. Mercedes-Benz revealed a sleek sedan called the F 015 Luxury in Motion concept car earlier this year and is testing it in California. Google has made waves with its bubblelike car.
Delphi's vehicle is equipped in front with a Lidar (laser radar) camera and a vision camera mounted inside the windshield. Two more Lidar systems are integrated into the rear bumper.
Delphi's engineers have already tested the car in Las Vegas, where they had to dodge drunk pedestrians falling down in front of it and navigate congested traffic.
"Now," Owens said, "we want to take this out on the highway . . . and test what these sensors can do and can't do."