Are driverless cars really the transportation of the future, or simply a passing tech fad? Whilst they may seem like the sort of thing from a sci-fi film, there are new developments in the driverless car space all the time with the likes of Google and Apple buying into the industry.
Fully-driverless tech is still at a testing stage, but partial automated technology has been around for a few years. An example of this is automated parking, which can even be controlled remotely.
Whilst we are a long way away from the roads being flooded with driverless cars, we took a look at the potential benefits a fully-driverless car could bring, as well as the hurdles manufacturers will need to overcome to make driverless cars a mainstream reality.
With more than 90% of car accidents caused by human error, the adoption of autonomous vehicles has the potential to make our roads much safer.
Many experts point to the remarkable safety record of modern aircraft to illustrate the potential safety of self-driving cars. Flying is recognised as one of the safest modes of transport, with just one fatal accident occurring for every three million large commercial passenger flights. Commercial aircraft are only in the hands of a human for about three to six minutes each flight (mainly during landing and take-off), with automated systems in charge for the rest of the time.
A huge benefit of self-driving cars is that it could give more independence to disabled people. Those who can’t see well or those with physical difficulties that prevent them from driving often rely on others to get around.
In 2012 Google gave Steve Mahan, who is legally blind, the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a Google self-driving car to test out the possibilities of the technology. Mr Mahan sat in the driver’s seat as the car steered itself using sensors, allowing the car to position itself safely in traffic and decide when to exit junctions. He was taken to get food from a Taco Bell drive-through and to pick up his laundry from the dry cleaners.
Mahan said: “This is a hope of independence. These cars will change the life prospects of people such as myself. I want very much to become a member of the driving public again.”
Most of the driverless vehicles in existence now are fully electric. Whilst the battery charge is still indirectly contributing to emissions (unless its powered entirely by clean energy), it is at a much lower level than traditional petrol or diesel engines.
Not only that, driverless vehicles also cause less air pollution by using less fuel and energy when driving. Most fuel is burned when driving at high speeds, braking and re-accelerating excessively. The driving style of autonomous vehicles cut these factors out - meaning less fuel is burned and less battery power consumed.
Whilst also being an environmental benefit, we felt this needed its own shout out. If all vehicles on the road were driverless, the AI could communicate with all other vehicles to avoid creating traffic jams. Not only would this benefit the air quality, it would also mean a reduction in the dreaded commute.
Self-driving cars bring the great benefit of not having to concentrate on what is happening on the road. The danger of being too tired to drive is eliminated as you would be able to sleep during the ride – perfect for those long road trips.
Commutes will no longer be as boring as the technology will bring the opportunity to turn cars into leisure rooms where you can relax and watch a movie as you wait to arrive at your destination.
The research and development required into producing driverless cars is very costly. When self-driving cars eventually come to market, they will have restrictive price points for some time. For the technology to become more mainstream, it will be up to manufacturers to find a way to bring down the price.
As drivers, we face many obstacles on the road that require us to use our judgement. It would be easy to program a driverless car to make an emergency stop if it detects an object in the middle of the road.
However, the driverless car may struggle in calculating the likelihood of being hit from behind due to the quick braking. And what if the object was simply a cardboard box? A huge pile up could be caused by a cardboard box in the road due to a machine simply not being able to comprehend how much danger the box presents.
Many driving scenarios require a human component which is derived from understanding consequences and being familiar with certain situations. It will take much trial and error until we can be confident that self-driving cars are up for this task.
From judgement calls, we also arrive at moral dilemmas. In the event of an accident, should driverless cars be programmed to protect the occupants of the vehicle at all costs, or should they be programmed to do the least amount of damage to people and other vehicles that could be in its way? Should a driverless car hit a pregnant woman or swerve into a wall and kill its five passengers? Should they swerve to avoid a dog and risk a collision with another car?
These are just a small number of examples of potential real-life situations a driverless car would have to be programmed to deal with.
As with all with all technological advances, hacking is a possibility. Self-driving cars could potentially be hacked to gain the driver’s personal details, or worse, hacked for someone to take over control of the vehicle’s steering or acceleration.
In addition to hacking, as with all technology, malfunctions are also a big worry. If a glitch was to cause the machine to act unpredictably or stop altogether whilst traveling at high speed on the road, it could be very destructive.
Its accepted that normal driving carries risks, however we as drivers have some level of control. Asking people to relinquish control and put their lives into the hands of technology is a huge step. The media outcry from the car accidents involving driverless cars demonstrate that we have a much lower tolerance for mistakes caused by this modern technology than human drivers.