Complex Made Simple

Will driverless cars ever become a reality?

AI and machine learning technologies are vaslty improving, and their applications in mobility could bring us true driverless vehicles - but not yet.

There are currently no consumer-facing fully-autonomous cars on the road in countries like the UK - although the Department for Transport has expressed a desire to see them on the nation’s roads by 2021 While the technology is certainly advancing today, we are still a ways off Companies like Ford, BMW and Tesla are already researching the technology and actively investing in it

Driverless cars are a key end goal for manufacturers. Indeed, most of the leading names in the motor industry are working on autonomous functions including Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota, Audi, Volvo and Tesla. 

There are currently no consumer-facing fully-autonomous cars on the road in the UK – although the Department for Transport has expressed a desire to see them on the nation’s roads by 2021.

This goal from the government comes as no surprise, especially when the benefits of autonomous vehicles are looked at. According to this report, almost 4,000 lives could be saved – and 47,000 serious collisions prevented – by 2030 with the introduction of driverless cars.

It also states that, by eliminating those accidents, it could save the economy more than £2 billion – so there is a clear advantage to making the technology a reality. 

Safety concern

We’re not at the fully-autonomous stage just yet. While we do have driver-assist and partial autonomous features, these still need a responsible driver at the wheel who can control the vehicle.  

There has been a range of reports on the safety of driverless vehicles and how they react with certain things, such as vehicles, street furniture and people.

In 2018, the first pedestrian death caused involving a self-driving vehicle was recorded in Arizona. Elaine Herzberg was struck by a test vehicle when she was crossing the road while pushing a bicycle. The car’s human safety backup driver did not take back control of the car in time. Last year, prosecutors ruled ride-hailing firm Uber was not criminally liable for the crash.

Uber scaled back its autonomous operations in the aftermath of the accident and has recently been issued with a permit by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles to test self-driving cars on public roads. 

A separate incident also saw a Tesla driver die when their car crashed with a lorry after being put into Tesla’s autopilot mode (which can control a car while it’s driving on the highway). These incidences have shone a light on the importance of collision avoidance systems and the need for ironing out teething troubles.

In regards to safety, an article published by Virgin, Roger Atkins, founder of Electric Vehicles Outlook, said that while current technology systems on autonomous vehicles “can’t match the hand-eye coordination of humans”, a time will come when they can beat our “natural abilities”.

Read: Tesla’s autonomous cars are facing speedbumps – Should we give up hope?

Currently in use

In the UK there are some forms of autonomous vehicles (in the form of pods) already on the road, including at the O2 Arena and Olympic Park in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Heathrow airports, Stockport railway station, Bristol city centre, the Lake District and, in January, driverless pods were unveiled at the University of Warwick.

Future of autonomous

In February 2019 Elon Musk promised that by the end of 2020, Tesla’s self-driving vehicles will be so sophisticated that humans will be confident enough to fall asleep while their car transports them from one place to another. The Tesla CEO said: “I would say that I am certain of that. That is not a question mark.”

Ford has also announced that it will be launching its autonomous vehicles in 2021 as a commercial transport service in the US. And BMW and Mercedes-Benz-manufacturer Daimler have also teamed up to form a partnership to develop autonomous vehicles, with a target of 2024 to install the technology in cars available to the public. 

With the advancements in fully-autonomous vehicles improving, it’s looking like self-driving cars could soon be a real thing. There’s too much money resting on this for it not to happen – with manufacturers, governments and entrepreneurs all with a stake in the success of the driverless revolution. 

Read: Tesla’s autonomous vehicles take a notable blow: Lead engineer departs