FRANKFURT -- A wide grin beneath his bushy mustache, Dieter Zetsche, the chief executive of Daimler, did as car executives often do at auto shows, cruising onto the stage in the company's newest model. But at the Frankfurt motor show this week, Mr. Zetsche added a surprise: he sprang from the back of a Mercedes S-Class that had no one in the driver's seat.
Cars that drive themselves have been a science fiction dream for decades, but at the Frankfurt show, there was a palpable sense that the technology was quickly moving from laboratories and test vehicles to dealer showrooms. If the visionaries have their way, the autonomous autos could greatly reduce the number of accidents and give makers -- especially in Europe -- something they badly need: a new reason for people to buy cars.
While robot taxis and the like are still probably more than a decade away, auto executives said in the last week, cars that handle most of the driving with minimal human intervention could be available by the end of this decade.
"In 2020, all the problems and challenges we are seeing today in allowing an autonomous driving car will be solved," Carlos Ghosn, the chief executive of the Renault-Nissan alliance, told reporters.
The latest version of the Mercedes S-Class, which goes on sale in the United States next month starting at slightly more than $92,000, is able to brake and accelerate by itself on the highway or in stop-and-go traffic. And it can steer itself on a straight or lightly curved road. For safety and legal reasons, the driver still needs to keep a hand on the wheel, and to be ready to cope with more complicated situations.
Luxury carmakers like BMW and Audi are working on their own autonomous systems, which are moving ever closer to vehicles that can do almost all the driving themselves. While buyers of expensive vehicles will get the technology first, suppliers and mid-market automakers are pushing hard to bring self-driving features to the masses, making them as affordable and ubiquitous as cruise control and anti-lock brakes.
"We don't want to create functions that are only available in superpremium autos," said Christian Senger, head of research for automotive systems at the German auto components maker Continental, which supplies radar sensors and stereo cameras used by the S-Class.
"These people don't need electronic chauffeurs," Mr. Senger said of luxury car buyers. "They already have humans."
Autonomous driving was one technology trend in Frankfurt that almost all the carmakers seemed to be excited about. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who visited Thursday, hailed what she said was the convergence of digital innovation with traditional German strengths in manufacturing, calling it a "fabulous opportunity."
While big technological hurdles remain, the potential rewards of self-driving cars are enormous, both for society and the car industry. Such vehicles would allow drivers to be productive at times when they are otherwise stuck in traffic. They could drastically improve safety; a self-driving car could theoretically allow its owner to continue texting or uploading photos to Facebook.
"There is less error in systems than in humans," said Mr. Ghosn of Renault-Nissan. "Computers do not drink or sleep."
Carmakers also hope that self-driving technology could help arrest an alarming slide in auto sales among younger people. An increasing proportion of young people in developed countries are not bothering to get drivers' licenses, preferring to spend their money on smartphones. The trend bodes ill for the car industry's long-term health.
Mr. Ghosn speculated that governments could even lower the legal age for drivers. His reasoning seems to be that autonomous technology could help compensate for teenage immaturity.
Thomas Weber, head of research and development at Daimler, said he was not worried that young people would lose interest in cars. But he agreed that autonomous driving technology would be a crucial selling point in the future. Environmental concerns and changing tastes mean that V-12 engines and all-leather interiors are not as sexy as they used to be. The technology in the new S-Class, which Mercedes plans to offer in other models like the E-Class range and some sport utility vehicles, may already be helping the company to regain ground it has lost in recent years to BMW and Audi.
"To catch up and then to overtake, we need something where we are better than the others," Mr. Weber said in an interview at the Mercedes stand in Frankfurt, which occupied an entire building. Mercedes designed the S-Class software in-house rather than buying it from a supplier, Mr. Weber said, and that will make the technology harder for competitors to match. "I am sure they cannot catch up fast," he said.
When it came to the other big technological theme of the show, electric vehicles, the industry was polarized. Companies that are bullish on the prospects for electric cars, including BMW and Renault, have introduced vehicles designed from the beginning to run on battery power and look markedly different from conventional cars.
Other companies, like Daimler, Ford and Volkswagen, are being more cautious, offering battery-powered versions of existing vehicles. That strategy reduces the upfront investment, because the companies can manufacture the vehicles on the same assembly lines as gasoline or diesel cars.
But some in the industry contend that such conversions will inevitably be inferior, with too much weight and too little battery life, and give electric cars a bad name. "You have to conceive the car to be electric to maximize the range," said Jérôme Stoll, head of sales at Renault, which offers two vehicles that were designed to run solely on battery power.
The only people not terribly excited about self-driving technology were the makers of sports cars like Lamborghini and Ferrari. "They are not made to drive from A to B," Stephan Winkelmann, the chief executive of Lamborghini said in an interview. "They are dream cars."
As for the farther-out future, cars that can drive themselves with no help from humans already exist in prototype form. But engineers have still not invented software that can do things like recognize hand signals from another driver.
The driverless S-Class that delivered Mr. Zetsche of Daimler onto the stage in Frankfurt Monday evening -- equipped with a video camera that broadcast his amused expression onto a big screen -- was a research vehicle with more technology than the production versions arriving at American dealerships next month.
Mr. Weber, the Daimler research chief, said that further advances in autonomous vehicles would require more mobile computer power than is available now, as well as more detailed mapping information and better and cheaper sensors. The quest is pushing car companies closer to technology companies.
In Frankfurt, Continental, which may be best known for tires but is also a major supplier of automotive electronics, announced a partnership with I.B.M. to develop technology that would allow cars to communicate with one another over a network.
Daimler, which has a lab in Palo Alto, Calif., is working with Google on several projects, Mr. Weber said. That cooperation may come as a surprise, considering that some German engineers have scoffed at what they consider to be overblown claims by Google that self-driving cars are just around the corner.
Mr. Weber said he did not share that skepticism. "I'm quite happy that we have other players in the field," he said. "It's not just the stupid old car guys."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.