Sadly, the flying car is still the domain of science fiction. On the bright side, self-driving cars are not only feasible, they're already here. In fact, Google's self-driving cars have logged more than 1.5 million miles of trouble-free driving (clearly those miles don't include a recent incident with a public bus), and can currently be found in California, Texas, Washington, and Arizona. Google is so confident in its self-driving technology that the company makes it easy for the public to follow along with monthly reports.
Eventually, the lessons learned – and the technology that is developed – will find its way throughout the industry. The gist of this continued development is plain to see; before long, autonomous cars will be an everyday reality. Just as smartphones and texting have transformed the world around us in just a few short years, it's entirely feasible that autonomous car technology could do the same.
But like any technology that is destined to cause a paradigm shift in the way we interact with each other and the world around us, there are still many questions left unanswered and puzzles ready to be solved. The technology may be ready, but are we? Are you willing to strap your toddler into a baby seat and then let the computer do the driving? The self-driving cars of the future are likely to evolve as we evolve with them.
The Promise of the Autonomous Car: A Personal Chauffeur
The ultimate expression of the self-driving car is likely yet to be determined. However, most people probably envision self-driving cars as mobile versions of robotic butlers. Available at our every beck and call, there for us when we need it, and able to take us anywhere we want, leaving the passengers to their own devices. Imagine if your car could drop you off in front of a busy downtown restaurant and then drive around or find its own parking space, only to come and pick you up when your meal was done. Well, that sounds terrific, but we're not there yet!
At the moment, self-driving applications (those that are commercially available, anyway; we're not counting Google's self-driving car) are limited to semi-autonomous auto pilot programs. Though far from being truly autonomous, they are helping both driver and engineer come to terms with what vehicle autonomy really is. Tesla offers auto pilot on its Model S and Model X electric cars, and manufacturers like Volvo and Mercedes-Benz offer or are developing similar technologies. These technologies allow vehicles to maintain speed, steer themselves, alert drivers to potential hazards, and even park themselves. If that much can already be accomplished, perhaps the autonomous personal chauffeur isn't too far away!
Self-driving Taxi Fleets Will Provide Cars on Demand
But the question must be asked: if cars become truly autonomous, do we even need to own them? Companies like Uber, Tesla, Apple and Google think there could be a future in the shared car (as well as autonomous public transportation). Fleets of autonomous cars could be the next natural evolutionary step of a concept already practiced by companies like ZipCar, Car2Go, and Paris and London's electric share car programs. Rather than own cars, why note hire them, on demand? With a smartphone in every pocket, it's easy to see how such a program could work.
Obviously, such autonomous fleets would have to be quite large if everyone gave up on car ownership in the coming decades, but it isn't hard to imagine punching in a request on one's smartphone and having a self-driving car arrive 10 minutes later to take you to your destination. Once you get there, leave the car, close the door, and be on your way. As with Uber and Lyft's current pay structure, you would be billed automatically and that would be that. You wouldn't have to worry about car insurance or even a driver's license. Nor would you have to worry about parking. For all but the most diehard gear heads, it's an attractive idea.
But What of the Obstacles?
Self-driving cars are close. As software, hardware, and technology companies like Qualcomm continue to work on vehicle applications for mobile processors, autonomous cars will continue to become more and more advanced. In fact, the odds are good that at some point in the near future, your car could be the "smartest" thing you own. But there's still much to be determined before your car drives you to work, and not the other way around.
One of the most obvious questions is who should be responsible in the event an autonomous car is involved in a crash. Volvo has already stated that it will take full responsibility in any accident involving one of its self-driving cars, but will other manufacturers follow along? And what of vehicle insurance? If your car is driving you, and not you it, should you still be obligated to purchase and maintain car insurance? Insurance companies are certain to lobby for this, but is it fair or logical? Finally, at what point can an autonomous car be trusted completely? In other words, how far away are we from being able to sit in the back seat of our car on the way to work (rather than having to babysit the wheel and pedals in the off chance the car loses control)? Taking this concept one step further, will cars in the future have steering wheels? At what point do human interfaces in cars become a liability rather than a benefit?
These questions are mostly rhetorical, of course. There is no clear answer. But we will, collectively, need to figure out the answers to these questions and more before autonomous cars become commonplace. In this case, it might not be prudent to jump into the deep end and learn to swim - better to ease into it. The future does show promise though, there can be no denying that. We are on the cusp of one of the biggest milestones in personal transportation since the original automobile was introduced over a century ago. Exciting, to say the least.
Any questions? Write me a comment below!