Self-driving cars are prowling the streets of California, Paris, London, Singapore and Beijing. Intel says, that the driverless tech will add $7 trillion to the global economy and save hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few decades. Also, it will devastate the car industry and its associated gas stations, drive-thrus, taxi drivers, and truckers.
Some people will benefit. Many will damage.
This article takes a look at the future of self-driving cars. But first, let’s look at exactly what a driverless car is.
What is a Self-driving Car? And How Does It Work?
A self-driving car, also known as a robot car, autonomous car, or driverless car, is a vehicle that is capable of sensing its environment and moving with little or no human input.
Autonomous cars combine a variety of sensors to perceive their surroundings, such as radar, computer vision, Lidar, sonar, GPS, odometry and inertial measurement units. Advanced control systems interpret sensory information to identify appropriate navigation paths, as well as obstacles and relevant signage. — Wikipedia.
In the nutshell, a driverless car’s system takes over all driving responsibilities. The vehicle’s system uses infrared radars, LIDAR, motion sensors, cameras, GPS and complex algorithms that allow the car to drive itself.
Using all of this technology, along with saved data, the car can generate a map to know where it’s going, what’s around it and what areas to avoid.
The car can read road lights, traffic signs, road markings and even monitor other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. It drives by the rules of the roads, meaning speed limits are always adhered to and obstacles and potential hazards are spotted much quicker allowing for a safer halt, with less braking and accelerating.
In the video below, you can see the animation which explains the basic operation of self-driving vehicles.
Self-driving Cars Advantages
Once a driverless technology has been fully developed, traffic collisions, caused by human error, such as delayed reaction time, tailgating, rubbernecking, and other forms of distracted or aggressive driving should be substantially reduced. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimated that widespread use of autonomous vehicles could “eliminate 90% of all auto accidents in the United States, prevent up to $190 billion in damages and health-costs annually and save thousands of lives.”
Driverless cars could reduce labor costs. They relieve travelers from driving and navigation chores, thereby replacing behind-the-wheel commuting hours with more time for leisure or work. For the young, the elderly, people with disabilities, and low-income citizens, automated cars could provide enhanced mobility. The removal of the steering wheel would give the interior of the cabin greater ergonomic flexibility. Large cars, such as motor homes, would meet enhanced ease of use.
Additional advantages include smoother rides, increased roadway capacity and minimizing traffic congestion. Currently, maximum controlled-access highway throughput or capacity according to the U.S. Highway Capacity.
The video below demonstrates how the MIT “smart traffic light” system works:
Safer driving will reduce the costs of vehicle insurance. Reduced traffic congestion and traffic flow improvements will lead to better fuel efficiency. Additionally, self-driving cars will be able to speed up and brake more efficiently. It means higher fuel economy from reducing wasted energy associated with inefficient changes to speed.
The average driver spends 17 hours a year searching for a parking spot, a number that jumps in dense urban spaces. New Yorkers spend a whopping 107 hours, Seattleites 58, and Detroit residents a still significant 35. Self-driving cars will save Americans 17 hours a year in parking.
According to Spaced Out Perspectives on parking policy report, driven vehicles are used only 4–5% time and being parked and unused for the remaining 95–96% of the time. Autonomous cars could be used continuously after it has reached its destination. This could dramatically reduce the need for parking space.
Starship Technologies in London showed in 2016 how autonomous technology could transform businesses. Its pizza-delivery robot can deliver food from restaurant to doorstep, trundling along sidewalks using cameras and sensors to find its way.
For example, Amazon could send bookmobiles roaming the streets, waiting for a customer to hail and browse the selection.
By reducing the cost of mobility as a service, automated cars could reduce the number of cars that are individually owned, replaced by taxi and other car-sharing services. This would also dramatically reduce the size of the automotive production industry, with corresponding environmental and economic effects.
Self-driving Cars Disadvantages
Job losses in public transportation services
A direct impact of widespread adoption of automated vehicles is the loss of driving-related jobs in the road transport industry. In addition, there could be job losses in public transit services and crash repair shops. The automobile insurance industry might suffer as the technology makes certain aspects of these occupations obsolete.
Privacy could be an issue when having the vehicle’s location and position integrated into an interface in which other people have access to. In addition, there is the risk of automotive hacking through the sharing of information through V2V and V2I protocols.
There is also the risk of terrorist attacks. Self-driving cars could potentially be loaded with explosives and used as bombs.
Delayed driver’s reaction
Once automation in vehicles reaches higher levels and becomes reliable, drivers will pay less attention to the road. Research shows that drivers in automated cars react later when they have to intervene in a critical situation, compared to if they were driving manually. Depending on the capabilities of automated vehicles and the frequency with which human intervention is needed, this may counteract any increase in safety, as compared to all-human driving, that may be delivered by other factors.
Ethical and moral reasons
Ethical and moral reasoning come into consideration when programming the software that decides what action the car takes in an unavoidable crash. Whether the automated car will crash into a bus, potentially killing people inside; or swerve elsewhere, potentially killing its own passengers or nearby pedestrians. A question that programmers of AI systems find difficult to answer is “what decision should the car make that causes the ‘smallest’ damage to people’s lives?”
The ethics of automated vehicles are still being articulated and may lead to controversy.
Reactions to Self-Driving Cars
A safe traffic environment is dependent on interactions between people. Today, eight out of ten people seek eye contact with the driver before they cross a busy road. But what happens when there is no longer a driver behind the wheel?
An international technology company Semcon decided to find out how people react to self-driving cars.
According to the American Automobile Association, 73 percent of U.S. drivers said they would be afraid to ride in a self-driving vehicle, a 10 percent jump from 63 percent in October.
About 64 percent of so-called millennials, ages 20–37, said they wouldn’t ride — a big jump over the 49 percent at the end of 2017.
Self-driving Cars Legislation
Signed by 70 countries in Vienna in 1968, The Convention on Road Traffic establishes principles to govern traffic laws. One of the fundamental principles of the Convention has been the concept that a driver is always fully in control and responsible for the behavior of a vehicle in traffic.
The United States and China are the most notable examples of non-signatory countries.
Legislation in the USA
Each US State is responsible for its own autonomous driving legislation. For the last years, 33 states had either passed legislation, issued executive orders, or announced initiatives to accommodate self-driving vehicles on public roads.
In June 2011, the Nevada Legislature passed a law to authorize the use of automated cars. Nevada thus became the first jurisdiction in the world where automated vehicles might be legally operated on public roads.
In April 2012, Florida became the second state to allow the testing of automated cars on public roads, and California became the third when Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law at Google Headquarters in Mountain View.
In December 2013, Michigan became the fourth state to allow testing of driverless cars on public roads. In July 2014, the city of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho adopted a robotics ordinance that includes provisions to allow for self-driving cars.
In 2016, Nevada, California, Florida, Michigan, Hawaii, Washington, and Tennessee, along with the District of Columbia, have enacted laws for automated vehicles. Incidents such as the first fatal accident by Tesla’s Autopilot system have led to a discussion about revising laws and standards for automated cars.
On 19 February 2016, Assembly Bill №2866 was introduced in California that would allow automated vehicles to operate on the road, including those without a driver, steering wheel, accelerator pedal, or brake pedal. The Bill states the Department of Motor Vehicles would need to comply with these regulations by 1 July 2018 for these rules to take effect. This bill has yet to pass the house of origin.
In September 2016, the U.S. Department of Transportation released its Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, and California published discussions on the subject in October 2016.
In December 2016, the California Department of Motor Vehicles ordered Uber to remove its self-driving vehicles from the road in response to two red-light violations. Uber immediately blamed the violations on “human error”, and has suspended the drivers.
Legislation in Europe
When it comes to self-driving, countries like the Netherlands and Sweden are more likely to democratize automated transport systems nationwide than any other regions.
The Netherlands’ Council of Ministers first approved autonomous vehicle road testing in 2015 and updated its bill on February 2017 to allow tests without a driver.
In 2016 the Netherlands deployed WEpods, the world’s first electric driverless shuttle, in a central Dutch city. It holds six people, and operate on fixed lanes across the city.
In 2015 the Swedish government first explored self-driving car testing, concluding that it was possible to carry out trials at all levels of automation on Swedish roads. The Road Transportation Authority can, as of July 2017, authorize permits and supervise trials in accordance with the law.
On December 2017, Volvo has launched a new self-driving vehicle development program in Gothenburg, Sweden named “Drive Me.” The program will provide participants with Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrids outfitted with the company’s newest driver-assistance tech.
The cars are equipped with cameras and other monitoring devices to observe how the families interact with the vehicle when the systems are in use.
In 2014, the Government of France announced that testing of automated cars on public roads would be allowed in 2015. 2000 km of road would be opened through the national territory, especially in Bordeaux, in Isère, Île-de-France and Strasbourg.
At the 2015 ITS World Congress, a conference dedicated to intelligent transport systems, the very first demonstration of automated vehicles on the open road in France was carried out in Bordeaux in early October 2015.
The UK government has grand plans for self-drive cars. It wants the country to be “at the forefront” of self-driving cars and believes the industry in the UK will be worth £28 billion in the next 17 years.
In 2013, the government of the United Kingdom permitted the testing of automated cars on public roads. All the driverless cars tested in the UK rank differently on the six levels of self-driving cars which are categorized from no automation, to fully automated. Before this, all testing of robotic transports in the UK had been conducted on private property.
In 2018, the UK government announced it wanted self-driving cars to be in use commercially by 2021. It’s also set out plans for a new code of practice that would support tests without human drivers, albeit decided on a case-by-case basis to ensure safety.
The German parliament passed a law that allows companies to begin testing self-driving cars on public roadways. Drivers are allowed to remove their hands from the wheel and perform simple tasks such as futzing around on smartphones while the car drives itself. But, drivers must be ready to take control to handle possible emergencies.
BMW announced an expanded fleet of prototype autonomous cars, and now it’s opening a dedicated autonomous-driving research lab. In 2021, BMW plans to introduce some degree of autonomous-driving levels on the iNext sedan, likely SAE Level 3 or Level 4. That means the car will still require some human intervention in certain situations. A fully-autonomous Level 5 car is likely much further off.
Legislation in Asia
China fully intends to compete in the autonomous consumer car segment. In December 2017 Beijing became the first Chinese city to allow autonomous vehicle road tests. In late January 2018, China completed the first draft of its national rules for driverless vehicle road testing, including city-planning elements that are crucial to testing autonomous vehicles. The government recently released a roadmap that seeks to develop cars that can drive themselves in most situations by 2025.
According to KPMG’s 2018 report, Singapore received the maximum score on policy and regulations related to autonomous cars.
In July 2015, the Singapore Land Transport Authority allowed 6 km of test routes and doubled the distance a year later. In 2017 the LTA expanded its AV test bed to neighboring areas such as the National University of Singapore, Singapore Science Parks 1 and 2.
Self-driving cars are coming — but are we ready?
Government and industry giants continue inventing and innovating technologies that can contribute to autonomous cars. But, to avoid public backlash or overreaction, they should not rush and slow the rollout down to a pace the public can adjust to. Innovations will gain public support and work to acclimate the public to the more advanced levels of driver autonomy.
Feel free to add on more such advantages and disadvantages in the comments section.