If you want to get truly high tech when considering your next car update, youll first need to remove something once thought of as essential from the equation; the driver.
Spearheaded by research carried out by organisations like Tesla and Google, alongside contributions from major car manufacturers like Ford and Audi, it looks like the future of driving is autonomous. To help brace you for the day when steering wheels and accelerators are things of the past, weve put together a guide containing everything you need to know about the driverless car.
What is a driverless car?
Not to state the obvious, but a driverless car is just that; a car without a driver. In theory, rather than a person needing to steer, accelerate, and change gears to control a vehicle, the car would be in control of itself. Some models are proposed to give complete control to the vehicle, whilst some wont be entirely autonomous, allowing passengers to take control if needed.
How would a driverless car work?
Many cars previously marketed as driverless or autonomous have heavily relied on environmental cues in order to properly function. A prime example of this was General Motors 1959 Firebird II, a concept car designed to magnetically interact with metal inserted in roads the highway of the future – to offer a driverless experience.
However, vehicles that rely on outside cues in order to function are no longer truly regarded as autonomous. Weve come a long way since the 50s, and the driverless car of the near future will use a number of more high tech systems to get around. Many of these such as GPS, video cameras, radars are already present in some cars.
In essence, a driverless car needs to take in information from the outside world, and process this quickly, like a computer. For example, a vehicle would use GPS, radar, and lasers to find and position itself within its surroundings, learning where roads end, where traffic lights are, and speed limit areas. Before a journey, the car would need to set a start and end point, and could receive live information to be notified or the best route and any traffic along the way.
How safe are driverless cars?
One of the ultimate goals of driverless cars is to make roads and driving in general – safer. In a world where all cars are autonomous, and able to react with each other on the road, this may very well be true.
However, the likelihood of conventional cars being immediately dropped and replaced by autonomous vehicles is pretty much impossible. When or if driverless cars first take to the roads, theyll be driving alongside vehicles manned by people, something that could actually increase the danger levels on the roads, as reported in a study carried out by the University of Michigan.
Much of the potential safety concerns surrounding self-driving cars comes from their inability to learn and gain experience as human drivers do. The study also reports that whilst a road full of autonomous vehicles may be safer than a road full of inexperienced new drivers, it wont be safer than a road full of experienced drivers, whove learned to predict and adapt to the behaviour of other motorists.
Who is making driverless cars?
Whilst most vehicle manufacturers are involved in researching the production of autonomous vehicles, some companies have taken (or let go of) the steering wheel and sped ahead.
One of the most notable companies researching and testing these cars isnt actually a vehicle manufacturer. Since 2011, Google has been testing a fleet of driverless cars, covering around 1.7 million miles so far. At the time of writing, the fleet consists of 23 Lexus SUVs, and is currently permitted to legally test in only 5 U.S states.
Googles prototype vehicle operates with the help of a LIDAR laser system, allowing the car to see its surroundings. Safety has been a minor concern, with Googles vehicles being involved in 11 minor collisions to date. However, Google say these were caused not by the on board computer, either being due to other drivers or the vehicle being driven manually.
Audi are making big strides towards being able to offer driverless cars to the public with their A7 Sportback. The A7 isnt an entirely autonomous vehicle, and in built up areas mostly requires a driver to take the reins. However, when out of the city the A7 is able to competently drive itself; something Audi are obviously confident of, having driven the A7 a whole 500 miles from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas unaided.
Audi have stated that the A7 is able to drive itself at speeds of around 70mph on relatively straight roads, providing traffic is minimal. If the car senses traffic or a built up environment, it will indicate that a passenger take the wheels. However, whilst this system might transfer well to the long open roads of the western U.S.A, its perhaps not going to be most applicable to the curves and traffic of the British road.
Elon Musks Tesla Motors has always positioned itself as a thought leader when it comes to new vehicle technology, so its no surprise that the company has invested in researching and producing autonomous cars.
Since late 2014, Teslas Model S has been manufactured with a rooftop mounted camera, forward looking radar, and ultrasonic location sensors in the front and rear bumpers. Using this technology, the Model S can detect road signs, lane markings, and other vehicles, and in combination with the cars cruise control can provide a semi-autonomous driving experience. With auto-pilot computer on wheels technology, the Model S allows drivers to travel hands free should they choose, and perhaps offers something as close to a driverless experience currently available for consumers to purchase.
When can I get a driverless car?
The timeframe for driverless cars being made available to consumers varies widely depending on the source. Whilst many cars currently have semi-autonomous features such as assistive parking and auto-pilot, there isnt currently a fully driverless vehicle available.
Fords CEO Mark Fields has stated he expects a full driverless car to be available by 2020, although that this is unlikely to be a Ford vehicle. Audi have stated that they expect to have an autonomous car, albeit a limo, available to purchase by 2017, whilst Nissan have set a target of 2020, and Jaguar and Land Rover have given 2024 as an expected year.
With this in mind, its not unreasonable to expect to be able to purchase some form of driverless car within the next 10 years. Thats providing that the right laws exist to permit them; driverless cars are a murky legal area in the UK, with legislation set to be reviewed in 2017.
So, whilst you might not be able to buy a driverless car from Bristol Street Motors quite yet, keep an eye out. In a few years (or decades), we might be able to offer you a completely hands free test drive. In the meantime check out the new cars we do have in stock.