Driverless Cars: When Will We See Them?

The first great paradigm shift in the automobile industry was the invention of the semi-automated production line by Henry Ford in 1931, ushering in an unprecedented new era in manufacturing in which the great labour required to produce a vehicle was replaced with the mechanical precision and efficiency of a producion line.

This invention changed the face of the automobile industry beyond recognition; no longer was the automobile for the wealthy few – this shift had brought all the convenience and practicality of the car to the masses.

There is another, equally as significant paradigm shift on the horizon for the automobile industry. The self-driving cars are coming.

They are here to replace you as the driver, to free you from the burden of having to drive while tired, drunk, annoyed, angry, or frustrated at traffic. They are here to replace your all-too-fallible human reflexes and reponse times, easily affected by the underlying condition of the biological body, with the cold, calculating and precise processing of a computer.

Indeed, the development and testing of these fully automated vehicles has already begun in earnest. In the techno-savvy region around the Bay Area of San Francisco, tech giant Google has been conducting trial runs of its latest technology, the driverless car, spawned from the genius mind of Sebastian Thrun, the co-inventor of Google Street View and director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Since legislation was passed in late 2012 allowing for the testing of driverless cars in California, Google have clocked up over 300,000 miles (500,000 km) of accident and incident-free driving around the San Francisco region, including many of its most difficult spots such as an infamous hairpin turn, all in varying degrees of traffic ranging from peak hour to weekends.

The driverless technology has been installed in several pre-existing and well known passenger cars, such as the Toyota Prius, Audi TT, and Lexus RX450h, and all have been flawless in their response to the technology, adapting perfectly in often difficult conditions and advancing through congested traffic and labyrinthine streets with the utmost of ease. And this is all with the technology still in a very early phase.

A large part of the success of the driverless cars can be contributed to the brilliant operating system software, lovingly named Chauffeur, that employs a plethora of advanced artificial intelligence and learning algorithms to help the vehicle adapt to almost any real world situation (a nearby car driving erratically, an object on the road) via a feedback loop that alerts the human driver by making a loud beeping noise whenever an incident occurs that might require manual attention.

Once the driver has temporarily taken control and dealt with the incident, the software remembers the actions that were taken so it can better adapt to similar situations in the future. Essentially, the more these cars are being driven, the the better they can make the systems.

Eventually, when driverless cars are released commercially to the public, it is expected that they will generally be capable of dealing with almost any conceivable situation on the road. It’s worth noting that in the rare event the vehicle identifies a situation it doesn’t know how to deal with and the human driver does not respond within an allocated time period, it safely pulls over to the side of the road and powers off.

The benefits of such a technology to the average driver are not hard to imagine at a mere moment’s thought; with driverless technology, the once-dreaded commute to work can be exchanged for a peaceful journey in which you can watch TV or movies on your tablet or phone, catch up on that book you’ve been meaning to finish, or even get some extra work done, so you don’t have to spend so much time at the office.

Not to mention the stress that can be saved from not having to deal with the often harrowing rigours of peak hour traffic – with everyone sitting in a driverless car, you won’t have to worry about tailgating – each car will keep a set distance behind the car in front of it – erratic or careless driving, other drivers cutting you off or trying to merge into you, or people in front suddenly braking. All of this will lead to a less stressful existence, which can surely only be a good thing.

Or can it? Despite the obvious benefits such as an increase in personal time that driverless technology will bring, there are, of course, a vocal minority who are vehemently opposed to the idea of relinquishing control of their beloved to the almighty machine.

To these people, the enthusiast, the connosieur, the diehard, they are more or less symbiotically attached to their vehicles and the idea of sitting, motionless and powerless, in their beloved is simply anathema.

To these people, we say take your medicine. You might love your car, but just as the once dominant means of transport, the horse-and-carriage, was set aside to a mere contrivance, a curiosity, with the invention of the train and automobile, so too the human-driven car will undoubtedly be assigned to the annals of history, relegated to a hobbyist’s passion, a curious artifact in a future museum.

So when can we expect to see these feats of invention and computing achievement on our roads? While it’s one thing to have a handful of test cars driving around California under somewhat controlled conditions, it’s quite another to expect every vehicle on the road to be replaced with a driverless counterpart, with all the traffic, licensing and regulatory implications that would bring.

Quite honestly, the greatest obstacle to the implementation of a completely automated road network is not the technology itself – it’s actually remarkably close to being refined enough to be commercially viable – it’s the political hurdle that must be overcome before we can expect to see auto manufacturers fully commit to a fleet of computer driven vehicles.

This will be a pretty substantial burden to overcome – proving to authorities and legislators that the technology is advanced enough to assure the passenger’s safety, and most importantly – proving to insurance companies that the software can be trusted not to cut out or fail at an inopportune time, causing an accident or failing to avoid one.

But, we have faith in our legislators and in Google’s enthusiasm in making this technology a reality, so with all optimism put aside, we think you can genuinely expect to see most, if not all, cars on road networks across the world populated by driverless cars within the next decade, no later than by 2023.

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