Perhaps the single hottest question in the motoring world is whether or not self-driving cars will ever be viable. Some think it is an inevitability, others find it hard to fathom how this could ever be delivered in a safe and consistent way. After all, it is one thing to design a car that can drive itself around a track, but a wholly different challenge to design a car that can drive around the modern British city safely.
Driverless cars were promised on British roads by 2021. In this article, I consider the two main stumbling blocks to the emergence of self-driving cars. One thing is certain if you want to buy a self-driving car you are going to have to wait! For now, feel free to check out AutoVolo for other eco-friendly cars – they have a pretty great system that allows you to search for a number of car types.
Science Fiction or the future of driving?
On the engineering side, self-driving cars represent a huge challenge. When we drive, we have to be able to react to a huge amount of different scenarios. This is particularly true on busy city roads, where the behaviour of other cars and pedestrians can be unpredictable. To make a machine that can handle this kind of decision making is no simple feat.
However, autonomous vehicles should ultimately be safer than their human-driven counterparts. This is because, while the engineering may be complex, a successful autonomous control system will be a more accurate and consistent driver than a human. It will not fall asleep, it will not drink and drive, it will not get angry fellow drivers and make poor decisions.
The engineering problems are not just concerned with the cars though. To reach this stage of fully autonomous driving would require extensive changes to road and city infrastructure. This is not just a case of road planning, internet connectivity would also be an important aspect, as self-driving cars will use this to communicate and coordinate with one another.
Will we let cars drive themselves?
The other stumbling block for autonomous vehicles are the legal and societal implications of having no human in the driving seat. For example, if an autonomous vehicle is involved in an accident, whose fault is it: the car’s occupant, the manufacturer or the city infrastructure? If the blame ends up lying with car’s occupants, will people want driverless cars? After all, if you have to continue paying attention as if you are driving, you might as well be driving.
This question goes beyond litigation though. Dangerous driving is a punishable offence, but you cannot punish a driverless car. You can sue a manufacturer, but this is not the same thing. This raises deeper societal issues around how we deal with the rise of automation and seemingly intelligent machines.
So far, I’ve focused mainly on the difficulties of driverless cars. As such, I’d like to finish by considering some of the benefits. First, as I mentioned earlier, driverless cars should be safer than their human-driven equivalents.
Moving beyond safety, autonomous vehicles can coordinate in a way that human drivers cannot. This allows for complex and highly efficient traffic management, especially if this behaviour is integrated into a larger smart-city. In this way, driverless cars become a hybrid of public and private transport, as they are partially controlled by the city they are navigating but still take you all the way to your front door.
Finally, autonomous vehicles can regulate the way they drive with far more precision than human drivers. This allows for more efficient driving, which should reduce the ecological impact of driving through lower fuel consumption. As well as reducing the carbon footprint of driving, this would also allow for reductions in air pollution in cities.