Self Driving Cars Are Closer Than You Think

Autonomous or self driving cars may be the wave of the future. While Google is currently leading the development of autonomous vehicles, other companies are now seeing the benefit of these types of cars and are working on their own vehicles. The issue is important enough for California to have recently passed legislation about self-driving cars, with the obvious implication that they will soon be prevalent enough to warrant regulation.

How close are we to being surrounded by driverless vehicles? What are some of the implications for drivers on the road and those who may wish to avail themselves of the benefits of this new technology? Can autonomous vehicles ever replace human driving skill?

The Facts About Self Driving Cars

As seen in the video “Autonomous Cars 101 with Brad Templeton”, autonomous cars are not as much science fiction as a careful blend of technology and common sense. While some companies have been reluctant to bring self-driving vehicles to the market due to safety concerns, others are seeing ways around initial problems and are developing vehicles that can be released onto the streets with less worry.

Google X began development of its self-driving car as part of its technology for electric vehicles. Using software known as Google Chauffeur, a team at Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory created Stanley, a robotic vehicle that was the winner of the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge and a prize from the Department of Defense. A total of 15 engineers worked on Stanely, with the ultimate result of a car that could do what seemed impossible: drive itself safely and navigate traffic without an accident.

While most “driverless” vehicles do contain emergency override equipment in the form of pedals and steering capabilities, in 2014, Google unveiled a concept for a driverless car without steering wheel or brake pedal. This car contains approximately $150,000 worth of robotic equipment, including a LIDAR system and a 64-beam laser that allows the vehicle to generate detailed 3D maps of its surroundings that it uses to navigate.

The creators of autonomous vehicles are developing several possible applications that could change the lives of those who require transportation but are unable to drive. For example, drivers who have lost their eyesight and can no longer operate a vehicle could utilize this technology to get them to any destination.

Self Driving Car Legislation

Currently, four states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation regarding driverless cars. Nevada, Florida, Michigan and California all have laws that allow the testing of automated vehicles on their highways, as well as the cities of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and Washington, D.C.

California’s legislation is probably the most comprehensive given Google’s strong foundation in that state. California’s law allows the use of these cars on public streets, and self-driven vehicles have already successfully navigated Lombard Street in San Francisco, a notoriously difficult passage for drivers, as well as driven over the Golden Gate Bridge and around the Lake Tahoe area.

Manufacturers Jumping into the Autonomous Car Market

Google was the first, but is not the only, developer of autonomous driving technology. Currently, several other makers are involved in creating driverless vehicles, including:

  • Toyota. By 2020, Toyota, which resisted autonomous driving for many years, will bring its first driverless car to the market.
  • Tesla. Always known for its forward-thinking research and development, Tesla expects to have an autonomous vehicle ready for market by 2018. However, the auto maker warns that regulatory approval may take longer.
  • Ford. The American auto maker estimates that fully autonomous vehicles will be on the road within five years, but does not have plans to have its own models out by then. It is possible that Ford will wait to see how the other automakers fare with these high-tech cars before committing to production.
  • Audi. Audi A8 limousines are expected to be fully autonomous by 2017.
  • Jaguar and Land Rover. British car brands such as Jaguar and Land Rover expect to offer full automation within the next decade.
  • Daimler. Daimler executives claim that by 2025, there will be driverless vehicles on the road without any form of steering wheel.
  • Nissan. Nissan plans to have driverless vehicles that can navigate urban traffic on the road by 2020. In a rare and bold move, Nissan claims that its technology will not rely on 3D mapping like Google’s.

Experts predict that by 2025, there will be driverless cars all over the world. Uber, one of the leading ridesharing programs, has indicated that they want to make their entire fleet autonomous by 2030, making inexpensive vehicle use so prevalent that private ownership of cars will be unnecessary. In 20 years, autonomous vehicles may completely populate U.S. highways.

How Safe Are Self Driving Cars?

Safety has always been a top concern in the development of driverless cars. As of August 2012, the Google car had completed 300,000 miles without an accident, with roughly a dozen cars on the road at any given time.

By June 2015, the Google team shared safety data on its vehicles: over 1 million miles driven during which 200,000 stop signs were encountered as well as 600,000 traffic lights and 180 million vehicles. During this time, 23 cars were involved in 14 minor accidents that Google claims were the fault of other drivers. Google cars have not been heavily tested in dangerous weather conditions.

As the autonomous vehicle continues to develop, safely will be at the forefront of concern for both auto makers and others on the road.