Just a few years ago, driverless cars seemed like something out of a science fiction film. But sure enough, various projects are underway to turn this futuristic concept into a reality.
For example, the Google Driverless Car is a project being led by Sebastian Thrun, one of the brains behind Google Street View. His team, consisting of 15 engineers working for Google, announced in August 2012 that they have completed over 300,000 driverless miles so far, without accident, and have around a dozen autonomous cars on the road at any given time.
Since September 2012, three US states – Nevada, Florida and California – have passed laws that allow driverless cars on public roads.
The issue facing the commercialization of these vehicles is that, as a lawyer for California’s Department of Motor Vehicles said, “the technology is ahead of the law”. Most laws regarding the road are based on the assumption that a driver is operating a vehicle. In fact, many road laws still date back to the era of horse-drawn carriages.
Why is the law lagging behind this new technology? There are concerns regarding the safety of leaving the lives of human passengers in the hands of automated machines. We can, however, expect that vehicle manufacturers will allow these vehicles off the assembly line and onto the roads only once they’re sure that they are as safe as they can possibly be. As safe as can be doesn’t have to mean perfect, though – these cars need only to prove safer than cars with human drivers, who are far from perfect themselves.
Aside from the issue of safety, some legislators have concerns regarding the dedicated lanes and roads that these cars may need, and the infrastructural challenge that this poses. However, altogether new lanes and roads may not be necessary. Experiments have been successfully conducted with magnets and tracks attached to existing roads.
Some advantages of driverless cars will be apparent only if driver-operated cars are no longer allowed on the roads. For example, this would allow for intersections without traffic lights and tightly controlled traffic management that could lead to an increase in road capacity.
Other potential benefits will apply even if driver-operated cars are still in the majority. For example, a driverless car may
- make the roads safer by practically removing the risk of human error
- free up time for the former driver
- park, refuel and navigate without a driver having to be present, saving more time, and
- take the form of a robotic “taxi”, saving money, reducing emissions, and reducing congestion on roads
Car manufacturers are catching on. Prototypes of future driverless cars exist, and many manufacturers have included some kind of “piloted driving” in models slated for release in 2014 and 2015. These may not be fully automated in the sense that the driver can kick back with coffee and a newspaper in the front seat, but it’s likely that we’ll get there soon enough.
Guest author Jeff is fascinated by driverless cars and looks forward to the day when he’ll be able to rent one at www.reedscarrental.co.za – the South African car rental company.