Autonomous Tomorrow – The Driverless Future
They always told us as kids that we would be in the driving seat of our future. Well, it is the future, and guess who is in the drivers’ seat – nobody. Literally.
When we urged on David Hasselhoff and his driverless companion KITT, in the 1982 series, Knight Rider; many while enjoying the thrill, never allowed themselves to mentally depart from the fact that this was nothing more than a feel good action movie that bordered on the impossible. Did we really think we would have self-driving cars? We would sooner be leaping from spaceships straight into school, Jetsons’ style. Fast-forward to 2016, and over 13 countries have successfully tested driverless vehicles across North America, Europe and Asia.
Interestingly, research (and possible testing) of autonomous cars started far back in the 1920s. However the first successful test did not happen till the 1980s when Carnegie Mellon University’s Navlab commenced the ALV projects, closely followed by the Germans, when Mercedes Benz commenced the Eureka Prometheus Project. So perhaps, Michael Knight and KITT were really on to something when they zipped up and down our TV screens.
Why Google it, when it can drive you
Software giants are closing in on the driverless trend and following various tests from 2005 to 2012; Google presented a new concept for driverless cars in March 2014 – A car that had neither a steering wheel nor any pedals – a fully autonomous car. By March 2016, Google had tested a fleet of driverless cars across over 2 million kilometers!
Google maintains that it has only being involved in 14 minor collisions on public roads – all of which it says were not the fault of the vehicle. However, on February 14, 2016, Google took full responsibility when its driverless car struck a bus while trying to maneuver past a sandbag. Google described the crash as a basic misunderstanding and a learning experience. Google expects its driverless cars to be commercially available by 2020 and it is currently lobbying the United States Senate to give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) powers to grant it permission to sell cars with neither steering wheels nor pedals.
Driverless Car? Try…Truck
Of course the Germans were not going to sit down and watch everyone have all the fun. Not as cute looking as the Google Car, but in 2014 when Daimler AG unleashed a 40-ton driverless trailer down the A14 highway in Magdeburg, Eastern Germany; the world had to take note. Not only did “Future Truck” successfully complete the circuit test, it did so by maneuvering through various complex simulations expected in actual driving situations – while moving at over 85km/h. Daimler expects the trucks to be commercially available by 2025.
In Pilbara, Western Australia, self driving trucks have also been tested across various highways with tests cumulatively covering millions of kilometers.
One driverless truck? Try a convoy
In April 2016, six of Europe’s largest truck manufacturers – DAF, Daimler, Iveco, MAN, Scania and Volvo completed the first ever autonomous cross-border test, with the self-driving trucks arriving Rotterdam’s harbor, from the city. However the trucks had drivers on board as test precautions. The Dutch infrastructure and environment minister, Melanie Schultz van Haegen expects that driverless trucks are closer than anticipated and these trucks would be able to reduce traffic accidents and congestion because of the advanced technology and artificial intelligence.
The self-driving convoy is certainly the first of its kind and this completely changes the transportation and commercial scene.
Pros and Self-driving Cons of a driverless future
While we huff and puff with excitement at the possibility of being able to text, video call, upload snaps on Snap Chat and read tweets – all while being driven by a software, the pros and cons must be examined.
So, the Pros:
- With over 80% of car crashes caused by human error and the slim chances of software driving under the influence, this significantly reduces road fatalities and makes the future safer.
- More time is saved as driverless cars cover more distance than human driven cars – no rest stops, no sleeping, and nonexistent fatigue situations. Google self-driving cars have covered 700,000 miles accident free while the average motorist only drives about 15,000 miles a year.
- Economic savings would be in billions of dollars with fuel savings averaging 724 million gallons if cars drove themselves.
- Reduced need for safety gaps, means more kilometers are covered as speed limits increase, this saves a lot of time and could translate in years being saved per driver.
- Prototypes are eco-friendly, creating a greener future and more environmentally friendly roads.
There are more pros, from anti-theft to a massive reduction in insurance premiums, even convenience for disabled and older people. However, the cons certainly exist and they include:
- Costs – at over $100,000 per vehicle, this will certainly be above the economic grade of over 80% of the global population.
- Job losses – well, if my car is going to drive itself, why do I need you? An estimated 4 million drivers will be out of a job globally, every year.
- Security – Why jack your car when I can hack it. Software security is a major concern.
- Road system and route upgrades will take any robot relying on a standard mapping system, some time to navigate through.
- AI might not easily achieve human ethical finesse and split second decisions that rely on human intelligence.
- Legal issues arising from when there’s a car crash, would it be the software developer at fault or the car owner?
So while we bask in the comfort of the future being in our hands, that may not be the case come tomorrow; but if the future is ready to drive itself safely, I’m certainly ready for that.