If you’ve been anywhere near the internet in the past decade, you will no doubt have caught wind of all the hubbub surrounding driverless cars. Interest in self-driving automobiles has peaked, with seemingly every major manufacturer seeking to muscle in, and the imagination of the public has been captured.
Hollywood has always been fascinated with autonomous motors, from Knight Riders crime fighting KITT, to Roger Rabbits wise cracking taxi. Recently, however, the idea is looking increasingly like a reality. Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, Ford, Toyota and more have all announced they intend to release vehicles that can drive independently by as early as 2020.
An autonomous car senses its surroundings through the use of gadgets including radar, GPS, motion estimation and object recognition. The vehicles systems interpret all of this data constantly, enabling it to keep track of its position, even in off road environments and Englands boisterous weather. From the outside, these cars appear normal; however there are cars currently in production that feature no steering wheel whatsoever, just comfortable seats, a smooth dashboard, and a GPS cheerily asking you where you would like to go. Volvo have even been in talks with Ericsson to arrange a high bandwidth allowance for their self-driving vehicle range, which would mean the occupants of their cars can sit back and binge watch Game of Thrones as they are ferried around.
The success or failure of these models will largely depend on the publics trust in technology and willingness to be chauffeured by Optimus Primes distant cousin. So what do the public think? A 2015 study by Delft University found that 33% of people interviewed stated they would buy a fully automated car. The most common apprehensions shared about driver-less cars were over hacking or misuse, as well as the more obvious concerns of your robo-chauffeur veering happily into a ditch.
As yet, Googles prototype self-driving cars have only been involved in 14 minor road accidents over thousands of test miles travelled, and in each instance Google has maintained it was the fault of other (human) drivers. Nonetheless, the vehicles still report problems identifying when obstacles are harmless or not, causing the car to fly skidding into a hedge to avoid a drifting plastic bag. Similarly, the sensor technology cannot as yet determine when humans are signalling the car to stop for example a furious police officer or baffled traffic warden.
As well as the afore mentioned fleet of search-engine funded robots, other companies such as Apple and Tesla are developing their own variants, in an automotive space-race to be the first car maker (or search engine, or, erm, computer manufacturer) to unveil an army of semi-sentient vehicles. So far, so Skynet. One particular problem faced by engineers isnt technical, but ethical. In situations in which the cars run into hot water, an algorithm would need to be developed in which the vehicles calculate the risks of their occupants, measured against the other cars on the road. For example: should your car drive you off a cliff to avoid a collision with a school bus? This moral conundrum has had engineers scratching their heads, and it is unlikely there will be an answer anytime soon.
Despite the bumps in the road, it seems the autonomous car is well on its way. In 2013, the UK government permitted the testing of driver-less vehicles on public roads. Financial services corporation Morgan Stanley estimates that autonomous cars could save the US $1.3 trillion annually by lowering fuel consumption, reducing crash costs, and boosting productivity. With more and more manufacturers piling on board, it looks increasingly likely that these robo-cars will be ferrying us around by the end of the decade. In the meantime, the Bristol Street Motors team can assist you in finding the perfect car with the latest in GPS technology.