Today technology is just a step away from building fully autonomous self-driving vehicles. The benefits of driverless cars on our streets will be huge.
As concerns travel by land, the last significant innovation dates back to over a century ago when horse-pulled carriages began gradually to be replaced by engine-powered ones. Since then cars have, no doubt, become more comfortable and powerful, but basically the mobility system has remained one of driver-equipped vehicle units. As ever faster progressing technologies are transforming our every day lives that is about to change. Prospects are that in future manually driven vehicles will gradually be replaced by self-driving units.
What looked as pure science fiction just two decades ago, has become reality as of 2012 (at least in test mode): fully autonomous, driverless vehicles on our streets. Google cars had already been renowned for mapping our neighborhoods for the ‘Street View’ mode of their popular Google Maps program. But the latest version of the Google car will undoubtedly be attracting even more attention, as people are unaccustomed to the sight of driverless vehicles. True, that might cause uneasy feelings by some but that is entirely subjective as autonomous cars, even by today’s embryonic standards, are already far safer than manual driving. A series of sensors from radar over ultrasonic to Lidars and video cameras makes these cars far more alert and reactive than any human driver could be. The analysis of the incoming data from the diverse sensors and GPS systems is constantly elaborated by the central computer to guarantee a ‘reasonable’ reaction even in case a sensor should fail or send wrong signals. Additionally, newly developed V2V (vehicle to vehicle) communication systems will further make sure that cars will roll smoothly without crashing into each other, especially at crossings and intersections.
The advantages of autonomous vehicles are enormous. Primarily projects started out of safety concerns. Worldwide there are currently about 100.000 deaths every month due to road accidents and that number will, unfortunately, only go up as car ownership in the developing world increases.
But there are many other benefits too, some of which are quite obvious. A driverless car allows all its passengers (the former driver included) to take a nap, watch a film or read a book while traveling. In congested cities parking issues would be a problem of the past as people simply step out and the car will go on to park itself. On the way back a simple request from one’s mobile will guarantee the car is back on time parked just outside the exit door.
Autonomous vehicles could further transform car ownership by facilitating car-sharing and thereby reducing the costs of ownership.
The middle to upper end classes of today’s vehicles are already equipped with the basics of automated vehicles: Distance-measuring sensors and automated breaking, self-parking and lane-keeping devices are just the first steps toward fully automated vehicles.
In certain environments driverless vehicles are already been used successfully, such as Rio Tinto’s autonomous mining trucks in Australia. Getting control of the dangers and unpredictabilities of the ‘outside’ world is, admittedly, more challenging, but engineers the world over are constantly coming up with new solutions. Convincing the public and handling legal issues will also take time. But in light of the huge advantages of autonomous vehicles, driverless cars will be coming. Before the end of the century, who knows, manual driving might be forbidden entirely and relegated to racing circuits. Now that would really be a revolution of mobility.