It wasn’t so long ago that autonomous driving seemed like a distant reality — something our grandchildren could look forward to. Thanks, however, to the rapid advance of technology and the car industry’s constant drive to conquer new territory, self-driving cars are becoming a reality sooner than we might have thought.
The idea is an old one. Self-driving cars have been a mainstay of our pop culture for years now. In I Robot, a futuristic Will Smith movie based on a short story by Isaac Asimov, self-driving cars play a pivotal role — likewise for Tom Cruise’s Minority Report. In the original Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger rode around in a self-driving taxi. It’s hard to say exactly when life started imitating art in this particular case, but the future is now.
About eight years ago, Google first announced that it would toss its hat into the self-driving ring long before anyone else thought it was an actual possibility. Soon thereafter, Google cars with a complicated nest of antennas on the roof could be seen almost everywhere. Late last year, Google finally launched Waymo, a self-driving car company, but most of the industry has caught up.
Recently, Uber started using a robotic, self-driving car in a small area of downtown Pittsburgh. The car does have a human engineer in the driver’s seat, just in case something goes awry, but still it’s a huge leap forward. And in October 2016, Tesla announced that all of its new cars will come with built-in self-driving technology. Before activating the tech, however, Tesla has some more calibrating to do. Plus, it has to wait for regulatory approval.
Experts say that autonomous driving could be hugely beneficial. There are an estimated 1 million annual car-related fatalities that are largely due to human error. A never-tired computer could presumably help reduce that number significantly. Also, according to a study conducted by Global Positioning Specialists, the USA loses $340 million dollars a year in traffic accidents. It postulates that driverless cars could reduce that number to only $34 million.*
All of that sounds good, but is the general public ready for a robotic chauffeur? This remains to be seen. Generally, however, studies seem to indicate that consumers want to be assisted by better technology and they also want most control in the hands of an attentive human driver.
What we’re seeing in the auto industry is a gradual improvement in isolated technology that, if combined, could easily equal an “autopilot” button. Take Cruise Control, for instance. This feature used to simply maintain a certain speed. Now, Adaptive Cruise Control can maintain speed while also keeping a certain distance from the car in front of you, accelerating or decelerating as needed. It will even bring your car to a full halt if the vehicle in front stops. Likewise, lane switching advancements have improved to the point where the computer can actually pull you back into your lane.
My prediction is that the auto industry will gradually shift toward creating an autopilot button in every new car, as opposed to building a whole new fleet of self-driving cars. Many car brands offer a full suite of high-end technology, such as Adaptive Cruise Control and Lane Departure Assist, that makes the driving process almost hands-free. An automotive journalist friend says he took a three-hour drive in one such car. He arrived at his destination without any driver’s fatigue at all — the car did most of the work.
One way or another, self-driving cars are headed to a garage near you. And no one will be more ready for the arrival than the young members of Generation Z, who are growing up in an age when ride-sharing is the preferred mode of travel.