It’s the technology of the moment: the self-driving car, come to deliver us all from the daily grind of having to be in full control of our vehicle at all times, freeing up more reading and working time on long journeys. But it’s been a frustrating few years as the ‘hype curve’ of the technology has peaked, with the initial enthusiasm losing a bit of steam as reality sets in. We are not yet five years away from an automation utopia… but regardless of the hype, self-driving car technology has continued to advance and iron more and more of its bugs out as its deployment inches ever closer.
So far, self-driving cars need a certain set of road conditions to be useful – long, straight, dry roads are ideal, though the vehicles can usually handle themselves pretty well in traffic. This makes climates in places like California ideal, and Ontario less than ideal, in the winter anyway. Snow is particularly hard for the cars’ arrays of sensors to deal with, because LiDAR, the light-sensing technology that many vehicles use, potentially becomes ineffective and inoperative in a heavy snowstorm. Falling snow can also mistakenly trigger parking sensors, causing them to beep uncontrollably.
When conditions are ideal though, pretty amazing things can happen. With the currently available technology, cars can stop for pedestrians in emergencies, drop off an occupant at the store and go park themselves. A recent test (in California, of course) in a prototype Audi sedan across 550 miles at an average speed of 70 mph in traffic shows that many of the major issues are straightened out – although the car can only handle the freeway and not construction zones or areas with poor lane markings, and the ‘driver’ must be ready at any time to resume control of the car if asked to by the onboard computer. Not exactly the most relaxing trip, seeing as you only have ten seconds to do so once the control system decides that it can’t handle things any more.
How the current regulatory system will have to adapt to autonomous road vehicles is also a point of contention. Right now, self-driving cars are banned in many US states (the exceptions being California, Nevada, Florida and Michigan), and Ontario will become the first Canadian province to allow them in 2016. ‘Drivers’ in California must receive special training on how not to drive their vehicle, like how to turn the system on and off and when it should and should not be used, and how to handle it in emergencies. It’s likely though that regular drivers won’t need to have this kind of training, as the rollout will be slow and steady.
Then there is the insurance to think about. Self-driving cars are likely to be much safer than those completely human-controlled when all the bugs are worked out, as the computers controlling them can react much faster to the wealth of data they receive than their human operators. But getting insurers, lawyers, regulators and consumers on board with this is going to be tricky. And what about product liability? Right now if part of your car fails, you have ample opportunity to pull it off the road and call for help. That might not be the case for an autonomous vehicle, so safety testing would be a high priority, both for the mechanical parts of the car and electromagnetic compatibility between the different components.
Accepting the Future
One of the biggest barriers to the introduction of self-driving cars is driver acceptance. A recent survey of more than 500 licensed drivers found that 43.8% of respondents did not want to see cars with any self-driving abilities, 40.6% said they would only like to see cars with limited self-driving capabilities, and only 15.6% said that they would be interested in fully autonomous vehicles. Older drivers, not surprisingly, were least interested in self-driving cars, but younger drivers were still skeptical. Overall, 96.2% of drivers wanted to retain some access to driving controls. Following the ‘hype cycle’, however, once people’s expectations align with reality, the idea may move into mainstream acceptance within the next five years.
Acceptance might not be voluntary though, as owners of the Tesla Model X and Model S found out recently. The new Tesla Autopilot software that is installed automatically over WiFi provides such aids as lane changes with a tap of the turn signal, speed management by traffic-aware cruise control, and on-command parallel parking. Looks like the future is heading our way at speed, whether we want it or not!
Driverless car – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Tesla Model X – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Guest Author Bio
John Berwick may be a Technical Writer by trade, but he enjoys blogging and voicing his opinion on a wide variety of topics more than anything else in the world. He has written for many different sectors including health care, software development, security, marketing, and e-commerce industries.
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