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Inside the self-driving car of the future

Mercedes-Benz engineer Alex Hilliger von Thile gives 60 Minutes a close-up look at the far-out features of the Mercedes F015 concept car

For many people, the idea of a self-driving car is, well, a little disconcerting. But top automakers say driverless cars powered by a form of artificial intelligence could one day be safer than our human-driven ones -- and a lot more fun.

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On 60 Minutes this week, Bill Whitaker visits Silicon Valley to take a spin in some of the autonomous cars automakers are racing to engineer. One of them is the sleek-looking Mercedes F015, a prototype built to demonstrate what is possible when the car takes care of the driving. For now, it is only capable of navigating a preprogrammed course, but in the clip above, Whitaker gets a feel for what it might one day be like to drive.

For starters, any passenger can control the car from any seat, two of which can face forward or backward. The no-button dashboard pops up with the swipe of a hand and responds to both eye movements and hand gestures. "What we are doing is natural interaction," explains Mercedes-Benz engineer Alex Hilliger von Thile, as he adjusts the volume of the car's music without touching a knob.

As it drives, the car uses cameras and radar sensors to detect everything around it, such as houses, trees and other cars, displaying them as blue dots on the dashboard screen. The driver can zoom in on the dots, revealing traffic on a nearby bridge, for instance, or another vehicle that's getting too close.

The car also notifies its driver of points of interest along the way. "When you're not really tasked with driving anymore and route planning, a navigation system would be completely different," Von Thile says. "Rather than having to focus on turn-by-turn maneuvers, the car can actually highlight what's really nice along the route." If you want to stop for a coffee, he adds, simply raise a hand and the car will pull itself over at your preferred café.

But Von Thile's favorite feature is the car's ability to choose music from your playlist based on traffic. When you're stuck in gridlock, he says, it picks a calming song, and then shifts to something more "vibrant" and "lively" when the road is clear.

A car that drives itself will take some getting used to, of course. Whitaker admits he's more comfortable facing forward than sitting with his back to the windshield and his legs outstretched. But one day, Von Thile says, we may all learn to relax and let our cars do the driving instead.

Editor's Note: This 60 Minutes Overtime video was originally published on October 4, 2015.