Driving can be a pain sometimes. After I had a surgery on my left hand, I resented purchasing a manual car for the first time after weeks of painfully pushing my bandaged hand up against the gear stick. I’m sure everyone knows the struggle of finding a designated driver for a big night out when you don’t want to pay an arm and a leg for a taxi (or worse, literally paying an arm and a leg in a crash caused by drunk driving).
So what if a car didn’t need a driver at all, but it would still get you safely to wherever you needed to go without being confined to public transport routes? We won’t need to wait too long to find out, because development of these vehicles is well underway with cars already being tested on the roads. Several companies are no doubt hoping they’ll become the future of transportation.
What is a self-driving car?
Unlike the autopilot feature in the Tesla Model S, which still requires the driver to pay attention to the road, a self-driving, or driverless, car takes care of absolutely every aspect of the journey. Google is working with carmakers to develop self-driving vehicles. They decided to take this direction for their cars after noticing some problematic behavior during testing. Even though drivers were told they still needed to pay attention to the road in case they had to take control of the testing car, people still started taking out their phones, talking amongst themselves and basically ignoring the road in every way imaginable.
Because of this, it was decided a half-and-half approach wasn’t the best option, especially when you consider the recent fatal accident which occurred while the driver was using Tesla-S autopilot.
Self-driving cars “see” thanks to a laser system known as Lidar mounted on the roof which creates a constantly updating map of the car’s surroundings as it moves along the road. The cars know how to obey traffic lights and other road rules and they even keep a look-out for pedestrians who might be crossing the street – perhaps with a vigilance that isn’t achievable by human eyes. Google already has a little fleet of self-driving cars driving people around in certain US cities, though they’re taking things slow at first with a top speed of 25 miles per hour (~40km/h).
Of course, if you’re not too keen on the “friendly marshmallow” design used for Google’s current prototypes (Baymax from Big Hero 6, anyone?) then you may want to save your excitement for the sleek, gratuitously futuristic approach taken by the Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion concept car, although you might be waiting a bit longer for something like this to hit the market.
Opening up transport opportunities
This technology is going to do a lot more than just let you have a hassle-free boozy night out (although its potential to reduce drink-driving deaths is nothing to be sniffed at). Once self-driving cars get out there on a worldwide scale, a lot of people who can’t drive manual or even automatic cars are going to have the option to get from A to B in a self-driven vehicle, especially if the technology is adapted into some form of public transport or taxi service. That includes the elderly, disabled, and people recovering from illnesses or injuries.
The technology will also create more free time. When your eyes don’t need to be on the road, you’re free to spend the trip doing whatever you’d like, whether it’s making a productive business call or just relaxing with a book. The car also doesn’t need to be occupied to travel. Need to pick up the kids from school? Send the car to collect them and then have it swing by the office to pick up mum from work on the way home. Is the cost of fuel cheaper than a day’s parking? Of course it is, so just send the car home and have it come back in time for your departure.
What could go wrong?
Google’s test cars have already driven over 1.5 million miles (>2.4 million km), but they’re not immune to mishaps. Even at their slow speed, the cars had been involved in 14 minor collisions to date, including one notable incident where Google admitted some responsibility after their vehicle hit a bus while attempting to avoid some sand bags on the road. However, these kinds of accidents could happen with any human driver; 8 of those 14 accidents involved the Google car being rear-ended by another driver while stopped at a traffic light, so it’s not exactly a case of unsafe A.I.
The more unusual risk is that by introducing a dependence on technology to a traditionally manual object, it becomes exposed to technological threats. Hackers have already figured out how to “trick” a Lidar into sensing an obstacle when there actually isn’t anything there, which poses the question of whether or not human interference will be a big obstacle in the future of self-driving cars.
A car-ful future
There are still a few uncertainties around the whole self-driving car thing that would understandably have a few people unsure about participating (like whether the car would sacrifice the driver to avoid hitting a greater number of people or vice versa). The good thing about that is that Google is still testing the technology and given the high stakes, it’s safe to assume that they won’t be bringing the cars to the market until they’re sure they’ve addressed all the issues. Until then, we’ll have to wait and see how the technology is going to have an impact on our roads as well as our lives.
Would you ride around in a self-driving car? Tell us in the comments.