As car manufacturers develop advanced technologies like crash avoidance, auto braking and lane departure warnings, they’re quickly moving toward the next generation of cars – autonomous vehicles. While the Big 3 automakers are working on driverless vehicles, others such as Tesla, Apple and Google have also joined the race to get an autonomous car on the road.
Autonomous vehicles hold the promise of safer roadways, fewer accidents and fatalities, and less traffic congestion, but when will driverless vehicles be a reality? That’s the million dollar question. Read on as we examine when autonomous vehicles might debut on the nation’s roads and the hurdles they face making it to the marketplace.
A question of timing
Ask 10 different auto and tech industry insiders when they think driverless cars will hit the roadways and you’re bound to get 10 completely different answers. With technology moving and changing so quickly, it’s little wonder that there is no consensus among experts.
About the only thing they can agree on is that groundbreaking changes that were once a pipe dream are coming. Some insiders like Elon Musk of Tesla believe that driverless cars will be in production before the end of the decade, while other experts take a longer view and put it closer to 2030.
While autonomous vehicles are being tested on public roads in select cities across the country, it’s unclear when the technology will be ready for primetime. With every advancement, we’ll have a better idea of who is right - the overly optimistic or the overly cautious.
Advancing in stages
SAE International, an association of automotive and aerospace engineers, has identified six levels of driving automation1. These levels have become standard in the industry and give everyone a clear point of reference. Before these standards were developed, everyone had a different definition of autonomous driving.
No automation – Driver handles all of the duties and tasks associated with driving the car.
Driver assistance – Driver controls the vehicle but the car may have some driving assistance features such as adaptive cruise control.
Partial automation – Automated system controls the accelerating, steering and braking, but the driver remains engaged and in control of the vehicle, ready to take over if the system fails.
Conditional automation – Driver is required but can turn their attention away from the vehicle. However, the driver must be prepared to take over within a specified timeframe (can vary by manufacturer) if instructed to by the vehicle.
High automation – Vehicle handles all driving duties in limited areas that have been geofenced or in special situations like a traffic jam.
Full automation – Car performs all driving functions in all road and weather conditions.
Getting from Level 1 to Level 5 will likely come in incremental advancements rather than one big switch where everyone turns in their keys.
Hurdles to implementation
Before we’re all zipping around in driverless cars, enjoying a stress-free commute, there are some hurdles that the auto and tech industries need to overcome. Here are just a few of the questions that will need to be addressed in the coming years leading to implementation of fully autonomous vehicles.
- Driver acceptance – How the driving public accepts autonomous technology will go a long way in determining how long it will take driverless cars to take over the roadways. People tend to be skeptical of new technology and that will likely be the case with autonomous vehicles. As the technology advances, drivers will be monitoring the results of road tests to gauge if they can trust the automated systems.
- Ethics/decision making – How will driverless cars make decisions in a life and death situation? When a crash is unavoidable, will the car protect the occupants in the car or will it sacrifice them for those outside the vehicle? These decisions that human drivers make in the blink of an eye will have to be programmed into the vehicle’s software.
- Road and weather – How will driverless cars handle snow, rain, fog and other inclement weather? What will happen when the sensors become blocked by rain or when heavy snowfall blocks the lines on the road?
- Legal issues – Before driverless cars rule the roadways, a host of legal issues will have to be sorted through. Who will be held liable if a self-driving car is involved in a crash? Is it the person riding in the vehicle? The car manufacturer? Or the company that developed the software and sensors? Will a driver’s license still be a requirement?
- Mapping – Autonomous vehicles need precise mapping to operate. This mapping has to be much more comprehensive than the GPS mapping that vehicles use today for navigation. How long will it take to get the detailed mapping performed for the nation’s roads – not just the major highways but also the rural passages? Who will take on this monumental task?
If it feels like there are more questions than answers, you aren’t alone. When you dig into the practical application of driverless cars, there are many issues that need consideration. Buckle up - it will be interesting to see how everything unfolds!
Additional Sources: 1SAE International Levels of Automation