Back in 1956, General Motors envisioned cars driving on “autopilot.” That was pretty unrealistic. Self-driving cars are just now within reach; fully autonomous cars are not far behind. “Look Ma…no hands!” has taken on new meaning.
What’s the difference? Self-driving cars handle many, if not most, of the driving chores but drivers still have to take control in some circumstances. Fully autonomous means the cars drive themselves completely and may not even have a steering wheel. Both kinds are steered by computers with input from cameras, lasers and GPS signals.
While Google and other companies are testing autonomous cars, several automobile manufacturers already offer hands-free features such as self-parking and keeping their vehicles in the correct lane. For example, Subaru currently is advertising “Eyesight,” highlighting its ability to automatically brake to avoid a collision without driver intervention.
Adaptive cruise control, which maintains a car’s distance from the vehicle ahead – particularly useful in heavy traffic – is already a commonly available feature. Audi is building on that with a car that is able to drive itself completely in a traffic jam, and others are following suit. Cadillac, for example, will offer “Super Cruise” hands-free highway driving sometime next year. Ford says its next Super Duty pickup will have seven cameras to totally eliminate blind spots, with other camera-enabled features available soon on its other models.
Nearly every vehicle manufacturer is racing to develop a self-driving/autonomous vehicle. Daimler-Benz, which builds Freightliner trucks, already debuted the first self-driving semitrailer truck. During a media event early in May it showcased its “Inspiration Truck” by having it drive itself on the road atop the Hoover Dam. The truck could take over driving tasks on a pre-selected route. The driver could use the time to fill out paperwork or even play video games while the truck rolls down the highway.
Fifteen automakers, including GM, Toyota, Honda and Ford are each spending $1 million to conduct self-driving/autonomous vehicle research on a 32-acre Michigan testing facility that’s filled with different road situations and conditions. The State of Michigan and other companies spent $10 million to build the campus. Automakers are flocking to Silicon Valley to tap into its concentration of high-tech expertise.
Silicon Valley-based Google says its autonomous cars have driven almost two million miles, while experiencing only 14 accidents – 13 caused by the other vehicles and one when the Google’s engineer took over control from the car’s systems. Earlier this month, Continental (an automotive technology supplier) sent a self-driving Chrysler more than 200 miles to an automotive convention in Michigan. Delphi, another supplier, “drove” a robotic Audi A4 from San Francisco to New York in April.
The vehicles raise many questions. Who regulates self-driving/autonomous cars – federal or state governments? Will insurance companies lower rates for the vehicles since human error causes about 90 percent of accidents? Since the vehicles are programmed to follow traffic laws, how will local governments replace traffic violation revenues? How can vehicles be programmed to make ethical decisions; for instance, how would they choose between crashing head-on or swerving into a pedestrian? How can the vehicles be made hacker-proof…and prevent misuse of private consumer information?
Self-driving and autonomous cars have many benefits. Beyond their ability to improve safety, they likely will drive more smoothly and efficiently, increasing fuel economy. By freeing drivers from focusing on the road, they could enable more productive or enjoyable use of time. They would offer the elderly and disabled better mobility.
But consumers will have to be convinced that self-driving/autonomous cars are safe. According to one survey of 1,000+ people, 55 percent of women and 37 percent of men are apprehensive. Half of respondents also reported unwillingness to pay more, problematical since by some estimates being self-driving/autonomous could add $7,000 or more to a vehicle’s price by 2025, dropping to an added $5,000 by 2030 and $3,000 more in 2035.
Making transportation “easier” is pretty complicated.