Self-driving cars: are they really the future?

Self-driving cars: are they really the future?

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Once found only in science fiction movies, the self-driving car has become an exceedingly likely addition to most consumer driveways over the course of the next two decades. Car manufacturers and tech companies have both been hard at work on new technologies and techniques that allow cars to sense the environment around them, see around corners, and achieve visibility in all directions. Through the combination of numerous cameras, sensors, and radar installations, cars are able to guide themselves through both highway driving and stop-and-go traffic with ease. Though not quite ready for primetime, self-driving cars show enough promise that their arrival is expected within the next five or ten years.

Proof of Concept: Audi Goes for a Self-Guided Joyride

Numerous manufacturers are hard at work on self-driving cars, but perhaps none of them is as far in their work as Audi. The luxury car company, owned by Volkswagen, as been working on self-driving technology for a significant amount of time. In fact, a concept Audi A7 recently drove from the company’s Silicon Valley testing site to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. The trip primarily involved highway driving and, when it did, the driver who accompanied the car was free to check emails, read a book, and pay a bit less attention to the road than usual. The car required traditional driving once it exited the highway, but was still a significant proof of concept for the idea of a self-driving automobile.

Audi isn’t the only company that is working on technology to make driving a bit less involved. Google has, for several years, touted its ‘Google Car’ as “the vehicle of the future”. The car features a roof-mounted camera system, along with radar and proximity sensors, that allows it to drive itself even when it’s away from major highways and arterial roads. Tesla, which pioneered the long-range electric vehicle, is working on its own ‘driver automation’ solution that it promises to integrate with its cars in the next few years. Other manufacturers have also been hard at work on a semi-automation, including adaptive cruise control systems and lane departure warning technologies that vastly enhance safety. These advances, when combined, represent the biggest leap in automotive technology in more than a generation. Even so, development is ongoing and the transition to driverless commuting will take time.

Have Patience: Driverless Cars Won’t Go Mainstream for a While

It’s important to note that, aside from lane departure and adaptive cruise control systems, automation remains illusive for today’s drivers. It’s likely to remain that way at least until the next decade, if industry experts are to be believed. This is for several key reasons, each of which will evolve and eventually subside with time.

First and foremost, regulations simply don’t exist for this type of car. While there are anti-distraction laws and plenty of safety laws for traditional cars, vehicles that drive themselves currently fall under no national guidelines. State rules exist, particularly in California, but manufacturers can’t truly proceed with consumer sales until national regulations exist for driver distractions, best practices on the road, insurance liability determinations, and much more.

Another consideration holding these cars back is the technology that makes it all possible. It’s easy to look at the vast camera systems and sensor configurations in concept models, and to make the assumption that these cars are almost ready for the spotlight. That just isn’t true, however. Audi’s model only handles the highway, while other concept models only shift into self-driving mode while stuck in rush hour traffic. Many other companies simply aren’t convinced of their self-driving technology’s overall reliability, and are looking to perfect that technology in an effort to save lives and reduce the risk of computer-assisted accidents.

Finally, a cultural sea change needs to happen before self-driving cars can become a must-have consumer item. Outside of a few company testers and engineers, no one knows what it’s like to sit behind the steering wheel while the car’s computers and sensors do all the work. This might prove unsettling for many of today’s more experienced drivers, especially as they try to find a balance between attention and relaxation, complete control of the wheel and faith in the computer to take it over.

A Great Deal of Promise Awaits the Auto Industry

Though there are legal, behavioural, and technological hurdles standing in the way of widespread adoption, self-driving cars have never been closer to reality. Concept vehicles and Google experiments have yielded a vehicle that can “see” lanes, heavy traffic, and approaching vehicles. Test drives have been performed successfully. Advancements continue to be made. Someday, this will lead to a sea change in the way people commute. It could lead to less highway congestion, easier mobility for the elderly and disabled, and safer driving through highly precise, computer-controlled movement that has never been used before. For consumers interested in a fully automated, less involved morning commute, the advice is simple: Stay tuned. There’s much, much more to come.

Jim Taylor is a writer and tech enthusiast from New York. He usually writes about business, news in car industry and photography. Jim is also a part of  the Burns Motor Company family.