Enjoy the Ride: The Rise of the Driverless Car

Imagine this for me: you’re sitting the driver’s seat of your car and you realize that you forgot to send an important email. You can’t of course just take your hands off the wheel, so instead you flip a switch on the wheel and suddenly you’re sitting in a driverless car.

As your writing the email on your phone, someone cuts in front of you. The car calmly breaks and accelerates when the road is clear. Its reaction time is superb, but yours isn’t. Would you have been able to brake in time? Hard to say.

Driverless cars are becoming more and more prevalent. The story above is not that far-fetched anymore. Let’s take a look at the rise of these self-driving cars and how likely it is that these will become the norm in the near future.

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The Concept of Self-Driving Cars

Google revealed in 2010 that it was working on self-driving cars. The motivation behind this was that people would spend more time using the search engine, thereby boosting profits for the company.

Just last year the company showcased the validity of the technology by using it to allow a blind man to run some errands while behind the wheel. The car drove him to his destinations without issue.

Sergey Brin, one of Google’s founders, thinks that this technology will be ready for widespread use by 2020. Is this the right decision though? What are we getting ourselves into by giving up control?

The obvious potential gains are a decrease in accidents and congestion. Mainstream cars are already including driver assistance features that remove control from the driver or help them squeeze into a parking space, so it’s already there.

Ford for example has a feature in its Focus models that allows the car to read road signs and notify the driver when they are going over the speed limit. The car can also drive itself and maintain a safe distance in traffic.

Insurance companies are already on board with this idea, going so far as to offer discounts for driver’s who purchase vehicles with assistance features like the ones described above. Basil Enan, the boss of CoverHound which is an insurance broker, says that “The more miles you’re logging on autopilot, the less you’re going to pay.”

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Cars that Communicate

Cars are also becoming more connected as time goes on. Starting next year, cars that are sold by General Motors will include a 4G mobile broadband connection that allows it to send hazard warnings to other cars or receive weather alerts.

Ann Arbor, located near detroit, has 2,800 cars, lorries, and buses that are designed to send and receive alerts like the aforementioned examples. Some are simple beacons, while others are far more complex.

These alerts are interpreted by humans now, but in the future, the cars themselves will send and receive these alerts and act accordingly. Fully automated cars are still a ways off, according to Jurgen Leohold who is head of research at Volkswagen . He says that it will be at least 50 years before we see cars that don’t require a driver in a widespread use.

He cites situations where the computer will need human input, and he says that companies will be afraid of damaging their reputation in the event that an automated car causes an accident, which will happen eventually.

Technical obstacles also stand in the way of total automation. For example, every inch of the roads would need to be mapped, along with street signs. That being said, this is happening already to power the navigation systems we use.

Logistics and Legal Headaches

One of the largest obstacles will be the decades of embedded legislation and regulation around driving laws. Much of it will have to be changed or redone entirely. Nevada, California, and Florida have all passed laws regarding the testing of driverless cars on the roads, but it is still a grey area, legally speaking.

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That being said, there’s no denying the benefits around car accidents. A study done by the World Health Organization stated that accidents involving automobiles kill 1.24 million people each year around the world.

The car insurance industry would also change drastically. With the number of accidents dropping significantly, rates would plummet as well. That being said, automotive makers would benefit from more people having access to cars and more people driving on the road.

At the end of the day it’s hard to say if this will become the norm. Many people believe it is inevitable because of the sheer decrease in accidents. Time will tell as it always does.