Here's a Realistic Timetable for Self-Driving Cars

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There's an understandable excitement surrounding driverless cars. The autonomous vehicle market is forecast to become a $77 billion opportunity by 2035, creating new revenue streams for tech companies and automakers alike. And, most importantly, the technology will radically reduce the number of auto accidents in the future. Those accidents kill up to 33,000 people every year in the U.S. alone; the wide adoption of driverless vehicles would prevent most of those deaths.

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Forecasting how big the driverless car market will be is one thing, but predicting how long it will take for the technology to go mainstream a bit harder. To help investors get a better idea of what to expect, here's a general schedule of when various automakers expect to launch their driverless cars, and when we should expect to see them everywhere. (Spoiler alert: It'll be a while.)

The next 5 years

The most aggressive timetable belongs to Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) CEO Elon Musk, who says his company will allow one of its vehicles to drive itself from Los Angeles to New York independently some time before the end of this year. This has lead some to believe that Tesla is ready to bring fully autonomous vehicles to the masses very soon, but that's a tad unrealistic. For starters, Congress is still in the beginning stages of defining driverless car rules, which currently vary by state.

Tesla may test a vehicle that can drive across the country, but don't expect the company to flip a switch and make every Tesla on the road driverless after that happens. Laws and regulations will need to be changed before that happens, and that will likely take years.

The timetable that Ford (NYSE: F) has laid out is more realistic. Former CEO Mark Fields said earlier this year that by 2021, the company is aiming to produce a Level 4 autonomous vehicle possessing neither gas pedal nor steering wheel that is able to operate in predefined areas. (You can read more about the varying levels of vehicle autonomy here, but just know that Level 4 means the car can drive itself in most situations, but not all.)

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To help achieve its goals, Ford spent $1 billion to acquire artificial intelligence company  Argo AI, which is developing software for Ford's self-driving vehicles. Ford will also be road testing up to 90 self-driving vehicles by next year and has spent $700 million renovating its Flat Rock assembly plant so that it can manufacture new models, including driverless vehicles, at scale.

But even though Ford plans to have Level 4 cars on the road by 2021, that doesn't mean that in four years, you'll be able to walk into a Ford dealership, buy one, and let it drive you off the lot. The company plans to produce its driverless cars for ride-sharing fleets first, where they would likely operate with certain restrictions (like what times of the day they drive or where they could go).

Indeed, about 19 automakers have publicly set timetables with goals that include having fully autonomous vehicles on the road in some capacity by 2021, but the average consumer probably won't be able to purchase one until much later.

The next 10 years and beyond

Once we go beyond a five-year time frame, it gets even more difficult to predict what will happen. But back in June, Mitch Bainwol, the CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (which represents BMW, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Volkswagen and other automakers) made an attempt when he spoke on the future of autonomous vehicles before a Senate committee:

Level 4 geo-fenced self-driving vehicles that can only be operated by an Automated Driving System will probably begin around 2021. But, retail sales to consumers of so-called Level 5 vehicles that can operate anywhere a person can drive a conventional vehicle today is unlikely to happen until around 2025 or after. ... Ubiquity is not projected to occur for at least four decades largely due to the fact that over 260 million light duty vehicles are registered in the U.S.

That's probably not what many investors in the driverless car space want to hear, but considering Bainwol essentially represents the U.S. automotive industry as a whole, it's worth paying attention to his forecast timetable.

Companies are positioning themselves now to benefit later

So it's going to take a few more years before we'll start seeing driverless cars around town (even in a limited capacity). And it'll take even longer before we can buy them from dealers, and probably decades before they're the dominant variety on the road. But if there's one thing that many in the tech and auto industries agree on, it's that driverless cars are certainly coming and their market will be huge.

NVIDIA (NASDAQ: NVDA) , which makes graphics processors that are being used to power the computers at the heart of a number of autonomous driving systems, says its total addressable market for autonomous driving will be $8 billion by 2025. The company's chips are already being used by Tesla, Audi, Baidu and others to help their semi-autonomous vehicles process the image information received by cameras. NVIDIA only makes about 7% of its total revenue from its automotive segment, but that percentage is likely to expand in the coming years as automakers ramp up driverless car testing and autonomous fleets.

Additionally, chip giant Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) recently purchased Mobileye, which holds about 60% of the advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) market, which will give its chips a boost into the semi-autonomous market. Intel predicts that driverless cars will create a $7 trillion passenger economy by 2050, which will include everything from driverless car sales to new services that spring up around autonomous vehicles.

Investors looking for mass-produced driverless cars to flood the market in the next few years will likely be disappointed. But their time is coming, and their potential is huge. Getting on board now appears to be a wise move considering how many automakers and tech companies are focused on this growing market. Just understand that you'll to be patient to profit.

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Chris Neiger has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Baidu, Ford, Nvidia, and Tesla. The Motley Fool recommends BMW and Intel. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.