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A new Google car negotiates traffic.

While traditional attributes, like good fuel economy, remain important to American auto shoppers, the focus is shifting. Buyers are putting more and more emphasis on high-tech safety features and looking forward to a wave of new autonomous technologies coming to market in the near future, according to a new study.

Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and General Motors all have announced plans to begin rolling out semi-autonomous features, starting in 2016, and Tesla just began remotely updating its Model S sedans to use its AutoPilot system, which permits hands-free driving on well-marked, limited-access highways. But a second study says it’s a new entrant to the automotive world, tech giant Google, that has taken the lead in self-driving technology.

“No other company has as much relevant technology to advance autonomous driving software,” says Egil Juliussen, PhD., senior research director at IHS Automotive and author of one of the new reports. “Google is in a unique position to provide the software and map infrastructure to allow mobility services to anyone — via fleets of driverless cars — within a decade or less.”

And, if the other study, by AutoPacific, Inc., is on target, that’s precisely what American motorists are looking for. It shows that safety technologies now rank sixth in importance among 62 separate vehicle attributes, behind reliability, driver’s seat visibility, vehicle ride, durability and handling.

“Safety has always been important to consumers, but as we’ve seen more advanced safety features come to market, we have also seen an increase in the percentage of consumers who rate safety features of high importance when shopping for a new vehicle,” says AutoPacific Vice President Dan Hall.

(“Driving” an autonomous Nissan Leaf in Tokyo traffic. Click Here to see what that’s like.)

Safety features have changed dramatically since AutoPacific first launched its Future Attribute Demand Study in 1994. Back then, airbags had just become mandatory and anti-lock brakes will still relatively new. Cars didn’t have radar sensors and stereoscopic vision systems.

But such technologies are becoming increasingly commonplace – and extraordinarily more sophisticated. While it is not capable of full, hands-off driving, the new 2016 BMW 7-Series comes close, with technology that can even steer around, not just brake, when it spots an obstacle. And such systems are rapidly migrating down to mid and even lower-level products. New federal rules will soon make backup camera systems mandatory.

According to the AutoPacific study, 65% of those surveyed said they want blind spot detection on their next vehicle, up from 57% a year ago, an 52% want collision warning systems, preferably with auto braking, a 9 percentage point increase. Demand for those and other high-tech safety systems appears to grow as consumers become aware of their capabilities.

(Click Here to find out why so many early autonomous vehicles are involved in crashes.)

As for self-driving technology, “Driver assistance safety features are a stepping-stone to autonomous driving and have been well received by consumers,” says Hall. “We’re seeing that same dynamic with semi-autonomous driving features, but consumers aren’t quite ready for fully autonomous driving.”

Slightly less than a third of the survey respondents said they’re ready for auto-pilot highway cruising – but interest in that and other autonomous technologies has been growing steady, notes Hall.

Who will get to market first is far from certain. Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn are both promising to roll out steadily more sophisticated semi-autonomous features through the end of the decade, and Ghosn has set a target of having a fully autonomous vehicle – capable of handling city streets, as well as highways – in production by 2021.

But according to the IHS study, it’s Google that could be best positioned to get a working system into consumer hands first.

“Unlike traditional vehicle manufacturers,” said the report, “Google also has the ability to leverage adjacent technologies and learnings from its other projects and investments – including robotics, drones and related technologies that help automotive operations, such as neural networks, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and machine vision. This provides Google researchers additional expertise not available directly to traditional OEMs.”

Google has logged hundreds of thousands of miles testing conventional vehicles modified to use its self-driving technology, and it is just rolling out a fleet of bubble-shaped “Google Cars,” with later versions set to be completely driverless.

The challenge for the tech giant is that it has decided not to actually enter the automotive manufacturing world. It will need to line up one or more partners willing to license its self-driving technology and, so far, it’s unclear any existing automaker is ready to go that route. But as the race to bring autonomous cars to showrooms, some makers might see that as the most expedient option.

(Tesla’s autopilot opens door to semi-autonomous cars. For more, Click Here.)

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