Many people see self-driving cars as the future of transportation, but many of the recent headlines related to autonomous driving vehicles are discouraging, mentioning crashes or other issues. It is clear that we are approaching a world with self-driving cars. However, it is still unclear when they will be perfected and become mainstream and what they will look like.
Partially Autonomous Technology Is Already Here
It is safe to say that while fully self-driving cars are not yet available for purchase, it is not hard to find a vehicle that has some autonomous driving features. Tesla, Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus all have their own autonomous features, whether that is driving in certain conditions, parking, or something else. There are even BMWs that supplement the automated parking with the ability to control them remotely. Given the prevalence of these autonomous driving features on luxury autos, it is reasonable to assume that we are close to the final stages of testing self-driving cars, but the question remains just how close we are.
To supplement the advancements in automotive autonomous technology, consider that airlines use semi-autonomous technology, as well. Pilots always fly during the takeoff, but most airlines rely on autopilot during most of the flight, with some even using it for auto-landing. Of course, the pilots keep a watchful eye the whole time, ready to take back control at a moment’s notice.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk: ‘self-driving will encompass all modes of driving by the end of next year’. Image from Electrek
How Self-Driving Cars Work
There may very well be changes to the technology behind self-driving cars before they become available to the public, but most current autonomous cars being tested use LIDAR. This Light Detection and Ranging technology emits laser beams at a rate of millions each second to give the auto a 360-degree view. At the same time, the vehicle relies on radar to detect the distance and speed of objects while a camera detects red lights, stop signs, and other visuals.
The computer within the autonomous car collects the data from the radar, laser beams, and camera, comparing it to data from the past and the actions taken then. Based on that information, the car commands the steering wheel and brakes. At the same time, the car’s computer engages in deep learning, which is when it combines the data, analyzing it in real-time so the vehicle gets smarter as it drives more. Most autonomous cars also have technology that lets them know when to accelerate, brake, or steer, a system that is helped by the global positioning system.
Self-Driving Cars Will Likely Include Connectivity
Other than that self-driving cars are the future, one of the few things that most experts agree on is that these autos will work best if they are connected. There will need to be some sort of car-to-car communications system for autonomous driving to work well. This will let each vehicle know the position of other autos, dramatically reducing the risk of accidents. This car-to-car communication could also let one car warn others about an issue requiring them to take another route, whether it is a fallen tree, traffic jam, or accident. Many automakers are already working to develop this car-to-car communication, with Daimler, Audi, and BMW paying $3.1 billion to use Nokia Here’s mapping service, which they will extend to provide the communication. To work, all vehicles, including those with human drivers, would need the car-to-car communication systems.
How Self-Driving Cars Could Be Used in the Future
Many of those working to create self-driving cars see these autonomous vehicles as a very real disruptor to the current idea of owning a car. Experts feel that the rise of autonomous cars could easily lead to a ride-sharing system but without drivers. Instead of owning a car, people would be part of an auto subscription service to have access to a vehicle when they need it or hire the car on demand. Since these would be self-driving cars, they could easily get to the subscriber’s location.
Potential Benefits of Self-Driving Cars
There are many advantages associated with self-driving cars that those in the industry are looking forward to. Since experts predict people will have subscriptions to autonomous auto services instead of owning a vehicle, there will be lower demand for parking, particularly in city centers. After all, the car can just drive away to a designated lot or another subscriber when not in use, then return when the current subscriber needs it.
The next challenge for self-driving cars: Making them human. Image from Mashable
Others predict that the use of self-driving autos will reduce the number of accidents that occur. This will not only keep people safer but also have a dramatic impact on the insurance industry. Those who feel that autonomous cars will limit accidents point to research like that from Stanford Law School showing that nearly 90 percent of road accidents occur due to human error. The WHO estimates that road traffic accidents are responsible for 1.4 million deaths annually.
The Safety Concern
One of the biggest challenges standing between self-driving cars and the future is safety. Theoretically, it would be much safer to be in a self-driving car than one driven by a human since the software will automatically make a decision and execute actions while humans can freeze. However, autonomous driving technology is certainly not at that point, given the accident in Tempe, Arizona, in March 2018. A self-driving Uber had an emergency backup driver, as well, but it did not stop in time and fatally hit a pedestrian.
Google’s Self-Driving Cars Have Trouble With Basic Driving Tasks. Image from Jalopnik
Complications of Self-Driving Cars
As mentioned, the adoption of self-driving cars would change the insurance industry dramatically, but there are some crucial questions that will need to be considered to determine exactly what would happen with insurance. The most important question would be whether the “driver” of the auto would be responsible for an accident or the automotive manufacturer.
The technology would also cause changes for law enforcement since many of the issues police deal with involve people behind the wheel. Drunk driving should not occur with self-driving cars and neither should speeding, running red lights, or other traffic violations.
Then, there is the potential for job loss due to self-driving technology, specifically among truck drivers. Trucking companies would likely save between $100 billion and $500 billion USD annually due to driverless vehicles, but the truck drivers would be out of a job. Something similar would happen with taxi drivers and other delivery drivers.
Going back to the safety concerns, there is also the complication of teaching an autonomous vehicle to make value judgments. If three people make a sudden, unpredictable move, such as going in front of the vehicle, can an autonomous car decide which person to hit and which ones to miss? Because they are programmed, autonomous autos do not have a sense of how humans react, leading to other related issues, such as the unpredictability of pedestrians. Researchers have also noticed that something as simple as placing a sticker on a road sign could confuse self-driving vehicles, causing them to miss stop signs.
Finally, there is a concern related to the hacking of autonomous vehicles. As vehicles gain more technology, they become even more appealing to hackers, and this is already a concern with the technology in place. Some governments, like the UK, are taking action by proposing laws requiring appropriate security measures in self-driving cars to prevent hacking.
While self-driving cars will certainly be a key part of our future driving experience, there is still plenty of development to be done.