A drive-by-wire car still has the same old steering wheel and pedals, but they’re connected to nothing but a computer chip, which makes driving a bit like playing a videogame.

The chip takes note of what you’re doing with the steering wheel and pedals, and signals small electric motors to turn the front wheels, control the brakes and operate the throttle.

Although some cars have drive-by-wire brakes and throttles, automakers are racing to bring out steer-by-wire systems. BMW, DaimlerChrysler and GM have already built prototypes. “Just about every manufacturer has steer-by-wire on their test tracks,” says Chris Gerdes, director of Stanford University’s Dynamic Design Laboratory. Steer-by-wire could keep a driver from turning too hard and sending the car into a skid on slippery roads. And it could also keep drunken, distracted or dozing drivers from drifting out of their lanes—the driving misstep behind 40 percent of all vehicle fatalities, according to Gerdes. His Stanford group has even built an electronic “lane-keeping assistant” that helps drivers make high-speed maneuvers without fishtailing. “Pretty soon anyone will be able to drive like a race-car driver,” he says.

Down the road, drive-by-wire systems will be able to detect imminent collisions, take over the controls and whisk a car out of harm’s way. But there’s a risk that an errant computer would interfere with a driver who’s trying to avoid hitting a pedestrian, warn some experts. “There are ways to make sure this sort of software is safe, but they require a lot of careful methodology that I’m not so sure the auto companies are using,” says MIT software engineer Nancy Leveson. Automakers insist that they’ll test the computers exhaustively before letting them hit the roads. Some firms are even thinking about offering software upgrades via satellite. If they do, let’s just hope that the upgrades come from carmakers and not some teenage hacker.

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