Driverless Cars: The Future Or Science-Fiction?

Posted by Ben Davidson about 9 months ago

Those of us who grew up in the 80s or 90s - and no doubt a few of us who have a year or two more on the clock - were sold a vision of the 21st century that wouldn’t be recognisable to someone who was born into it. As we stand here, now in the 21st year of that century, it’s probably worth accepting that, whatever the science-fiction stories of our childhood told us, those flying cars probably aren’t going to happen in our lifetimes; and we can’t expect a robot butler, but we can at least have an autonomous vacuum cleaner.

One development that does seem realistic in among all the science fiction, however, is the driverless car. With most, if not all, of the world’s major vehicle developers at least having a plan to launch a fully-autonomous vehicle sooner rather than later, we are not in the realms of the imagination anymore. If you’ve been waiting for the days when you could climb into your vehicle, punch in some co-ordinates, and let the onboard computer do the rest, you’re closer than ever to realising your dream. 

But… right now, it’s not a case of heading down to your nearest dealership and ordering the car of the future, then waiting for it to drive itself up to your garage - so what are we waiting for?

Where are we now?

If you are reading this and thinking “but you can buy a driverless car now! The technology is here now!” then you’re kind of right, but also kind of not. Right now, while there are differing levels of law on the statute books in more than half the states of the USA, as well as guidelines in other countries, there are no fully-autonomous vehicles that comply with driving law anywhere in the world. Vehicle developers are working on it, and legislators will continue to draft laws to deal with what comes of that.

So vehicle manufacturers can tell us, as Tesla ex-boss Elon Musk did last year, that their cars are a single software update away from being fully autonomous. But while there is a string of accidents - some fatal - connected to the use of the autopilot feature in the recent past, they’re going to have a tough time convincing lawmakers to give their blessing to any “true” driverless technology.

So what can driverless cars do at the moment?

They can do a lot, but it is what they can’t do that will stand out to people who are following closely. Simply put, there is no vehicle that can ferry you from A to B without driver intervention reliably enough for manufacturers to be able to sign off on it. This means that if you have a vehicle that is somewhat self-driving, you’ll still need to have a driving licence if you wish to use it for travel - because these cars are not well-enough equipped to fully understand the concept of hazard recognition, and need to rely on a human driver.

Numerous states have laws which would technically allow a self-driving car without human occupants to drive on their roads, but this is not the same thing as self-driving cars being a real possibility right now. More accurately, these laws allow car manufacturers to test their vehicles on those roads and, if they are safe enough to get every certification necessary, they could then move to being sold as driverless vehicles.

So we’re pretty close, then?

Maybe. One thing that is hard to ignore is the fact that most manufacturers are still some way from being as sure of the immediate future as Elon Musk purported to be. Ford has recently scaled back its plans on delivering fully-autonomous driverless cars, saying now that they expect to have a road-ready model by 2024 after an initial estimate of 2021. That might disappoint some fans of the idea, but it’s really more important that manufacturers get this right than do it quickly.

One of the major headaches surrounding a driverless future is the very reasonable question of what happens with insurance when the “driver” is an AI. Questions such as that, as well as the position of a driver seeking auto accident lawyers help after an injury, will continue to surround this issue. Only when the manufacturers, insurance companies, licensing authorities and drivers themselves are convinced of the ability for fully autonomous cars to be trusted to carry us around can we expect to see them become a feature of our roads.

What remains to be ironed out?

At this very moment, there are still several issues that remain to be fixed before we see driverless cars first become a common sight on the roads, and then become the main method if transport for commuters, delivery companies and so on. For example, as the following tweet points out, how will a driverless car cope with a four-way traffic stop - a situation which in the present moment relies on human drivers using their own social knowledge and road awareness?

After experiencing a 4 way stop this morning with several cars on each side, I have decided that my self driving turing test will be when an autonomous vehicle can handle that situation without issue.

— Cyber coder (@bgiromini) February 22, 2018

Consider your average long-haul drive: you likely face at least one situation such as the above, and your expertise gets you through it and on to the rest of your route. To become viable, an autonomous vehicle will need to be programmed with the protocol for every such eventuality, and that’s going to be challenging. 

The driverless car is still very much in the “matter of time” category, and we will eventually see more definitive movement towards having them on our roads as a permanent feature. For now though, it would be wise not to rely on that day coming sooner rather than later; keep your own driving skills sharp, because you’re going to need them.

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