Looking into the tea leaves – that is, citing transportation and demographic trends – a former General Motors R&D head has said that by 2020, self-driving vehicles will be available.

The 2020 vision for autonomous vehicles presented by Larry Burns at the University of Michigan Robotics Day could solve such issues as distracted driving and tailgating. It could also dovetail with calls for reliance on lighter – likely hybrid or all-electric – vehicles, and greater efficiency.

A few years back, GM made the case for the Volt as a car for the future based on studies that average daily driving for three-quarters of Americans was under 40 miles per day. That, it said, was good enough to justify its "moon shot" experiment for the plug-in car.

Looking ahead again, GM's former head of R&D, according to Automotive News , told the Michigan audience about a soon-to-be world of driverless cars tracked by GPS with collision avoidance systems that are already well underway .

GM is experimenting with electric pods, but the vision, assuming it comes to pass, calls for regular styled vehicles as well.

Chances are you’ve seen reports of Google’s small fleet of six driverless Toyota Prii and its autonomous Audi TT as well. These cars have logged hundreds of thousands of miles in and around California, largely without incident.

In 2007, GM demonstrated a Chevy Tahoe SUV that won a 55-mile race sponsored by DARPA (the U.S. government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

Burns said as early as 2015 many of the autonomous driving features necessary to remove the driver will be available. These include adaptive cruise control, forward collision avoidance systems and lane-keeping assistance.

“By 2015 we're going to have auto companies selling features that are akin to cruise control on steroids," he said. "We're in this five- to 10-year window when it's going to be really exciting ... By 2020 we'll have self driving cars."

He said automakers are also thinking about potential legislative hurdles.

"We're going to have to have policies and laws to figure out whose liable when driving this car," he said. "As an innovator, you've got to anticipate all of this. I think the market is really going to be the thing to drive this, not the government."

That other forward-thinking company, Google, has been talking up the myriad facets of driverless possibilities with automakers, Burns said, and for his part, he sees the potential.

"It's not going to be one breakthrough that gets it to the point where it excites customers, it's going to be an improvement of a bunch of factors," he said. "We're not going to go from driving our cars to not driving our cars overnight, it's going to be a gradual transition. Hopefully this picture will motivate people to build on it, but it's a great opportunity."

Burns did not say exactly what kind of cars will be the first to receive the full treatment so you can legally and safely go to sleep at the wheel.

In China, GM has demonstrated its EN-V concept to reportedly enthusiastic acceptance, and is working out the bugs there in a model "eco city" for the little personal people pods.

Implicit in the message however is larger vehicles, such as compact cars, would also be in the mix.

As mentioned, this is not just about GM pods. Google's Prius provides an example of technology transferable to any vehicle.

It’s long been a joke that the only problem with some vehicles is the “loose nut between the seat and steering wheel.”

With distracted driving now being called an “epidemic,” the case is being made – as the technology is also – to remove people from being directly involved in driving their own vehicles.

What do you think? Is this a positive development? Can you foresee pitfalls? Are you ready for the paradigm companies are working on, in part, they say, for the betterment of society?