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They’ve long been the stuff of science fiction, but a new study predicts that once they come to market in the near future, autonomous vehicles will rapidly become a popular reality.

The study, “Emerging Technologies: Autonomous Cars — Not If, But When,” predicts that by 2035, self-driving cars, or SDCs, will account for half the vehicles sold in North America. Worldwide sales will reach about 11.8 million, according to IHS Automotive, which prepared the report. By 2050, the consulting firm predicts, almost all vehicles will offer an autonomous mode.

Nissan says it will be ready with multiple, commercially viable Autonomous Drive vehicles by 2020. A new study says self-driving cars will be a popular reality by mid-century.AFP - Getty Images

Officials at Nissan recently promised to put their first autonomous vehicles into production by 2020, and a number of other makers have since made similar announcements. The IHS report notes that the first generation of these vehicles will actually require a human co-pilot to sit at the ready in case the technology develops a problem – much like an aircraft autopilot. But it anticipates truly independent, self-driving vehicles requiring no human involvement will begin to be offered by 2030.

The study predicts that as the technology improves, demand will increase.

Not everyone is so confident. There’s an ongoing debate about where autonomous vehicles will first come to market. Andy Palmer, the Nissan Motor Co. global product czar, recently cautioned that because of the litigious nature of the American market, manufacturers “might” have to steer clear of the U.S. unless legislators take steps to protect the industry from a flood of frivolous lawsuits.

The irony, proponents say, is that autonomous vehicles could yield massive reductions in collisions, injuries and highway fatalities.

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