Picture yourself getting into a self-driving car, a book in your hand. Occasionally you pause to answer an email. Stuck in traffic? Perfect time for a movie. Or a meal. Maybe even a martini. After all, you’re not the designated driver; your car is.
Over the last few years, self-driving cars have made some technological leaps with improved sensors and data-processing technology. But how far away are they from becoming affordable and reliable enough for wider use? Business Insider says we’re about 10 years away from 10 million autonomous cars on the road.
However, today’s models aren’t quite advanced enough to be permitted on the road without a human driver to monitor and take control if needed. Any big change takes time — and adjustments in infrastructure. When the time comes, however, autonomous vehicles are sure to change the way we get around: less traffic congestion, more transit-sharing and may even fewer deaths caused by car accidents. So, will the road ahead belong to people or robots?
Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk envisions a “Tesla shared fleet,” or a ride-sharing service that would allow passengers other than the owner to catch rides while the vehicle is unoccupied. Tesla’s current Autopilot model is capable of changing lanes and monitoring traffic flow, but still requires human attention.
Google’s Self-Driving Car Project started in 2009 and prototypes have been spotted around such cities as Austin, Texas and Metro Phoenix, Arizona — self-driving more than 1.5 million miles. Its testing fleet includes modified Lexus SUVs and vehicles specially designed from the ground up for self-driving. There are always test drivers on-board.
Ford also has indicated that it’ll mass produce a self-driving car — without so much as a steering wheel — by 2021. The company is committed to making a significant investment in research into autonomy.
In Singapore, a company called Nutonomy has already launched the world’s first consumer trial of driverless cabs, also with safety drivers on-board. Then there are ride-sharing services like Uber, who are also keen to replace human drivers with automation. Uber now allows customers in downtown Pittsburgh to request self-driving, specially modified Volvo XC90 car — which are, for now, supervised by humans in the driver’s seat.
Despite a reported handful of self-driving car accidents (including one involving another car running a red light), self-driving cars will overall be much safer than human-operated vehicles. After all, unlike people, they’ll be programmed to always follow the rules. So no running a red light, no rear-ending, no nothing.
On the other hand, self-driving cars can also be susceptible to hacking and malfunctions. They must also be programmed to make moral and ethical calls in certain situations, like unavoidable accidents. Should it sacrifice the occupants? Whose life matters more, two adults or one child? The car’s decision on such things will have to be pre-programmed in advance.
According to a study conducted by Kelley Blue Book to help understand current consumer perceptions, most respondents indicated that humans should always have controls to the vehicles, and about half want to continue being the ones behind the stirring wheel.