Autonomous driving is a technology that drivers in the US are going to have to get used to and they’re going to have to get used to it pretty quickly.
The technology, which uses machine learning algorithms, or essentially computer programs that can learn by trial and error, promises to fix a lot of problems plaguing the transportation industry.
Many in the public and private sector are acknowledging its promise and welcoming its arrival, including US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
“We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people,” Foxx said on the US Department of Transportation’s website in a press release.
The technology has tremendous promise to save lives, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in 2014 alone, 32,675 people were killed as a result of a car accident. With autonomous vehicles in play, however, this figure would be reduced to near-zero.
Autonomous driving technology would also benefit traffic patterns, as the constant stopping and starting that is caused as a result of human error when driving would be replaced by a system of cars that are communicating and able to all drive at a uniform speed, reducing traffic jams and also emissions, as people will spend less time on the road.
One of the other use cases that may not come to mind for the average reader is the mobility it would provide to previously excluded people. People with disabilities, as well as the elderly, are currently excluded from the mobility and freedom that cars provide, unless they have someone willing to drive them. With autonomous vehicles, they will have the ability to hop in the car and go wherever they want, whenever they want. There has been a push by some regulators to slow the progress of truly driverless cars, and it shows their blind spot in regard to this population.
The technology has made quick progress in recent years, with Google now testing their autonomous vehicles in the San Francisco Bay Area and Austin, Texas. Their vehicles have been involved in only one accident in which they were at fault, which was a minor accident with a bus that left no one injured.
The accident came as a result of an assumption the bus would yield when the car tried to merge into another lane, and the bus instead continued at the same speed, leading to the accident.
Google’s car program does not yet have a clear direction in terms of how it will come to market, but Google created a joint venture with Ford Motors where it seems Google will provide the software and Ford will help build the cars. It is unclear if this is the only distribution channel they view for their software, or if they will look to position themselves as a software provider for autonomous vehicles as the industry shifts towards them, similarly to how they did the same for smartphones with the Android platform.
Another company competing in the autonomous vehicle space is Tesla Motors, the Elon Musk-driven electric car venture. They released a software update to their Model S sedan fall that gives the car the ability to drive itself, though the driver is legally required to keep their hands on or near the wheel due to current regulations, but also at Tesla’s recommendation.
The technology is in beta, which means that it is not a finished product; but the company felt it would be best to test it with a public trial. There is no data available for Tesla’s autopilot software, though there have been some reports that on secondary roads it has had some issues. The company issued a reminder that in the beta they intend for it only to be used on highways where the driver will be driving on the same road for a long period of time.
Many experts in the industry peg the time at which autonomous vehicles will become commonplace within the next ten to fifteen years, and many believe the technology will be ready sooner. Tesla CEO Elon Musk says his company will have fully autonomous driving capabilities within five years.
One of the issues around this technology is the regulatory environment, as Congress has failed to address it and local governments are proving tentative about the technology. The California State Government passed a surprisingly regressive set of regulations around it, requiring a steering wheel and a human driver among other things.
With the exception of Tesla, many companies are taking a wait-and-see approach to the technology, waiting to see what the regulations will be before deploying it in full. They are all deploying it in part, however, in some form or another. One notable example is Volkswagen’s autonomous braking technology that detects an accident situation and will take control from the driver.
The technology is not here today, but it’s going to be in five years. If the regulatory environment catches up, it’s going to help potentially revolutionize the transportation industry for accessibility, efficiency and sustainability.