For now, it's still full-speed ahead for self-driving cars

Even as safety alarms have been raised by the death of a Tesla (TSLA) Model S driver whose car was operating in Autopilot mode, automakers keep moving ahead toward producing a self-driving car

BMW has just announced a partnership with tech giant Intel (INTC) and Mobileye (MBLY) -- a maker of collision avoidance systems -- that it says will produce a fully automated car by 2021. BMW thus strengthens its entry in the race involving other automakers and major tech companies to put safe self-driving cars on the roads in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Is BMW's 2021 goal achievable?

"That target is realistic from a technology standpoint, meaning it's possible that BMW will offer a fully autonomous car by 2021," said Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "Whether or not all the regulations are in place for such a car to operate without limitation on public roads remains to be seen."

In addition to safety regulations, public acceptance of self-driving cars could pose an obstacle to widespread use. The Tesla fatality, which occurred when the semi-autonomous system in a Model S failed to recognize a tractor-trailer turning in front of it, raises concerns about future public willingness to ride in automated cars. After the crash, Tesla said the driver should have had hands on the steering wheel and have been ready to take over the car.

Autonomous cars' safety record in the next few years of testing will likely be crucial. "This one fatality, by itself, won't slow the transition to autonomous vehicles," said Brauer. "However, if more fatalities occur, it could slow the public's acceptance of self-driving tech."

Brauer added that, on the other hand, a clean safety record in coming years could lead to adoption of self-driving cars faster than many now believe.

As BMW moves full speed ahead, how are other contenders faring in the race to put self-driving cars on the road?

  • Google (GOOG) has been working on self-driving technology longer than competitors and is aiming for completely autonomous vehicles that need no driver intervention at all. Google has partnered with Fiat Chrysler (FCAU) to build 100 self-driving minivans and says it's open to other partnerships as well.
  • Audi (VLKAY) has been working with a group that also includes Mobileye, which is also one of BMW's collaborators. Other Audi partners include auto parts supplier Delphi (DLPH) and Nvidia (NVDA), a computer graphics specialist. Kelley's Brauer points out that Audi is developing some crucial components of autonomous driving such as hyper-accurate location technology.
  • Both Ford (F) and General Motors (GM) have invested in tech companies that can help them work toward autonomous cars. Ford invested $182 million in software company Pivotal, and GM acquired Cruise Automation for an estimated $1 billion to work on a "highway autopilot" system.
  • In a nontech lobbying coalition, Google has joined with Ford, Volvo and ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft to try to resolve legal restrictions and insurance and liability questions concerning self-driving cars.
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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.