When one considers the top ‘wow’ technology being developed currently, driverless technology in the automotive industry has to be on the list. Despite concerns from various groups within society, it is just a matter of time before self-driving cars become an everyday reality.
The ever-growing list of manufacturers getting stuck into research and development merely serves to emphasise this. With a large number already conducting trials and implementing measures to prepare for the technology’s introduction into daily life. Surprisingly, however, it’s not just your typical car manufacturers who are leading the way; brands such as Google, Bosch and LeEco are all getting involved too.
As one of the pioneers of new technology in the automotive industry, it’s no surprise to see that Tesla is setting out to be the first to achieve a full self-driving socially-viable car. As standard, all vehicles now manufactured in a Tesla factory have Autopilot hardware installed for autonomous capabilities. Tesla claim that the safety levels associated with the new technology are substantially greater than that of a human driver.
So, what can you expect from a test drive?
With Tesla set to release their full self-driving model by the end of the year, their competition is in a head-to-head race to see who can join them. A report by Bloomberg has suggested that Ford is one of those, as they look to skip straight to what is known as SAE Level Four in the self-driving industry – “autonomous capability that will take the driver completely out of the driving process in defined areas.” At CES this year, Ford’s Ken Washington revealed to the BBC that plans are to have their fully autonomous vehicle on the road by 2021; one that will oust both steering wheel and brake pedal features. Is that a practical move for manufacturers?
What are the benefits?
The introduction could be set to improve safety on our roads, with some believing that if just 10% of our cars were driverless, over 200,000 accidents could be prevented each year. Given that the leading cause of road accidents today is put down to driver error, this isn’t a surprise to see. Not only this, but driverless cars could also offer greater freedom the elderly and disabled populations. Likewise, people in general who currently rely on public transport because of their inability to drive, would be granted greater flexibility of movement.
One of the biggest questions raised and possibly one of the most important has been the issue of ethics. Imagine you’re behind the wheel when your brakes fail. Left or right, which way do you choose to veer? Now imagine you’re a passenger in a self-driving car. How would the computer decide? When a car looks out on the world, it can’t distinguish the factors we as humans would take into account on a daily basis. Until these psychological barriers are addressed, it’s unlikely that people will be fully comfortable putting theirs and the general public’s lives in the hands of a computer, despite the fact that we already do, unwittingly, in many scenarios.
As vehicles become ever more reliant on internet connectivity, there is no doubt that the risks posed from external cyber threats heightens. This was reinforced by two researchers, who were able to hack into a Tesla Model S back in 2015, where they found they could remotely open and close the doors, seize control of the infotainment system and even start the car. Since then, Tesla and General Motors have been among the first to implement “bug bounty” programmes, where hackers are offered financial rewards for spotting flaws and bugs in their computer software. This has represented a move in the right direction, but does it indicate that manufacturers are struggling to keep up?
One might assume that accessing new technology like this will be costly. Whilst there is no doubt that some cars will be expensive and beyond the average person’s budget; however, Tesla’s Model 3, priced at $35,000, shows that autopilot technology will be accessible within the medium budget range too. Instead, insurance costs could be where drivers take a hit most. Current predictions suggest that the government is planning to drive high insurance costs for specialist policies; which will cover crashes caused by both the driver and the vehicle’s on-board computer. Effectively, motorists will be taking out one premium for the price of two.
There is still a way to go before autonomous vehicles on our roads are the norm, but it is not far off. When the time does come, will you be ready to let go of the wheel?