The Google self-driving car pioneered the notion that self-driving cars could lead to very real societal benefits. Now other innovators are hoping to navigate the driverless car into the mainstream. (Eric Risberg/AP)

The self-driving car is navigating through the technology adoption cycle that many products take in moving into the consumer mainstream. Along the way, the concept of the driverless car has transitioned from the early stages of unbounded hype — look, cars without any drivers on the road! — to signs of early maturity, in which functional concerns about the types of societal benefits these self-driving cars might provide are weighed against the drawbacks or costs they might introduce. If the benefits significantly outweigh the costs, it’s a safe bet that more automotive companies will consider ways to bring innovative self-driving technology to the consumer mainstream.

Showcasing the benefits of the driverless car is one of the goals of the Audi Urban Future Initiative, which is coordinating a $140,000 prize competition in four cities around the world – Boston, Mexico City, Berlin and Seoul. In Mexico City, for example, innovators will focus on how self-driving cars can help to reduce traffic congestion. In Boston, another team will focus on how new self-parking technology could lead to a rethinking of mobility in urban spaces. It’s all part of a larger goal to make people aware of how driverless cars are part of the future of mobility, especially in the world’s most crowded urban spaces.

At CES 2013, Audi’s Piloted Parking technology was actually one of the standout performers at the Las Vegas technology show, leading Popular Science magazine to name the Audi self-driving car a “Product of the Future.” And that early success is encouraging rivals – such as BMW – also to introduce its own forays into the self-driving space. With the “intelligent parking” features of Connected Drive, BMW owners might be able to preemptively locate available parking at an upcoming destination without the need to circle an urban block again and again, waiting for a spot to free up.

It’s enough to watch a YouTube clip of a driverless Audi car pulling into a parking spot in a garage without the aid of a human behind the wheel to conjecture about some of the benefits available. In the future, of course, these cars would need to park in garages that include both driverless and traditional cars, and that introduces a whole new set of concerns. However, when driverless cars are loaded with enough sensors and given a powerful enough algorithm, it’s possible to imagine a massively optimized mobility network in which fewer cars are needed, fewer garages are needed, and fewer parking spaces are needed. This would free up our urban spaces for more than just a bunch of concrete parking garages advertising “Early Bird” specials — maybe more green spaces, maybe more affordable housing.

In short, the type of algorithmic optimization made possible by self-driving cars could have a tangible, bottom-line impact – and not just from our urban buildings no longer having to employ a team of parking garage valets. A recent Eno Center for Transportation study analyzing the impact of driverless cars concluded that, within central business districts, every new autonomously-driving vehicle replacing one of today’s cars would result in approximate cost savings of $250 per year. Those cost savings result from a combination of lower land, construction, maintenance and operational costs. Those are very real cost savings, and don’t even include the amount of gas that is saved or the amount of traffic congestion that would be reduced by cars not circling around, looking for parking. The Audi Urban Future Initiative may finally help determine whether estimated gains from the driverless car are real or not. 

Of course, we’re a long way from any concept of a self-driving car — a decade, even more. Even the most conservative estimates project 2020 as the first year that driverless cars will start to appear in the mainstream. And there are a lot of regulatory obstacles to overcome. Read just about any study about the future of the driverless car, and there are pages and pages dedicated to hard, tough issues such as ethics, privacy, security and liability. The questions keep on coming: If a one self-driving car hits another self-driving car while backing into a parking space, who’s responsible? 

And, yet, you can already see how some very sober-minded thinking about a very way-out-there technology is starting to filter down into the mainstream. The types of self-driving features found in luxury cars — the Audis and BMWs of the world — will likely make their way into cheaper, mid-market vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is now talking about making vehicle-to-vehicle communication a mandatory requirement within the near future, potentially paving the way for a network of “connected cars” trading data and information about everything from traffic conditions to the availability of parking spaces. In addition to California and Nevada testing out the self-driving car (both states with a lot of highways), you now have a crowded metropolitan area like Washington, D.C. also gearing up for the arrival of the driverless car.

That, in short, is often how a technology goes from the pinnacle of the hype curve to the sweet spot of the consumer mainstream. It all starts with a crazy innovation concept — it then gets picked up and fine-tuned by some of the best minds in the business, and then is asked to prove its societal benefits in real-world use cases using verifiable data. Then comes the hard work of making the technology affordable enough and cool enough that it will appeal to the mainstream. And that approach appears to be working: In a recent J.D. Power survey, 37 percent of Americans said they were interested in self-driving cars. That’s a long way since Google pioneered the concept of the driverless car just a few years ago.