Driverless cars: How soon will sci-fi be a reality?
Hello all, James here (the one who really likes cars and stuff like that).
No! No! Noooooooooooooo!
Firstly, driverless cars aren’t commercially available yet, and secondly, it’s not yet clear what impact they’ll have on the world.
Although the first attempts at autonomous cars date back to the 1920s, these were effectively just overgrown radio controlled cars. The first attempt at proper vision-guided driverless cars was back in 1987 with the cool-sounding Prometheus project, which received pan-European funding.
Various research teams and car manufacturers continued active development of autonomous driving systems in the following years, although the idea of them legally driving on real roads still seemed like science fiction, until this decade.
Welcome to a future of driverless cars
Since the beginning of this decade there has been a surge in interest in amongst the mainstream car manufacturers in developing driverless cars, as well as some newer automotive faces, and a major search engine or two … Indeed, Google currently seems to be the closest to having nailed it, with 2 million road miles already on the clock. The search engine giant started off adapting existing cars, but in 2014 it unveiled its own design, looking much like a nauseatingly cute Japanese cartoon character.
2014 also saw the release of ‘almost self-driving’ technology in a couple of models. The Mercedes S and E class received ‘Intelligent Drive’ options for autonomous steering / acceleration / braking, lane guidance, and accident avoidance, though it required the driver to keep their hands on the wheel at all times.
Tesla took this one step further with its AutoPilot system, for the electric Model S. This enables the driver to take their hands off the wheel for short period, and constantly learns and improves, based upon real-world driving experience. Customers have already manged (largely) autonomous US coast-to-coast drives.
However, Tesla has been keen to stress that drivers must remain aware and in control at all times, and that all accidents are their responsibility. Which leads us onto the biggest problem with self-driving cars…
Breaking the law, breaking the law
By most accounts, we’re only 2-4 years away from driverless technology being mature enough for release – amongst many others, Volvo, Ford, Toyota and Nissan have 2020 firmly in their sights. Alas, the law may not be ready quite so quickly.
Major issues include who is responsible for an accident caused by a self-driving car, and whether a computer can legally be regarded as a responsible driver. Volvo took a powerful step in pre-accepting responsibility for accidents directly caused by its self-driving systems, but it still looks like it’s a long road to get all US states, let alone European countries, to agree on a suitable legal framework.
So, I’m still allowed to drive for a little while longer?
It certainly looks that way, and even after the legal mess is resolved, autonomous cars are likely to be rather pricey (despite reduced insurance premiums) and niche for a good few years. Even wildly optimistic uptake estimates suggest that at least 25% of the cars we’re driving in 2040 will still be of the regular human-driven variety.
At the risk of sounding like an automotive Martin Luther King, I have a dream that one day, self-driving and human-driven cars will happily coexist, so that the former can alleviate the burden of the daily commute, whilst the latter can be a tool of lateral G-force pleasure.
Until that day comes, I’m going to carry on blogging about the sort of cars I get to drive myself. Hooray!