“Are we nearly there yet?”
It’s a question usually asked around 20 minutes into a 4-hour journey by passengers under the age of 10, but it’s also a question that’s relevant to the progress of driverless cars.
In 2016, the world was so optimistic about the future of driverless cars, that the then US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx declared confidently that fully autonomous cars would be everywhere by 2021. So where are they?
In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at how far along the road to driverless cars we are and discuss why fully autonomous cars are still just a distant fantasy.
Self-driving cars could be on the road by the end of the year
At the moment, fully autonomous vehicles are a thing of the future. Instead, manufacturers are focusing on developing what they are calling ‘self-driving’ cars, which include sensors, cameras and data technology to increase levels of autonomy.
The technological advances have been so great that the Department of Transport has announced that motorists could see self-driving vehicles on British roads as early as this year. These vehicles will be fitted with adaptive cruise control and automated lane-keeping system (ALKS) technology, which will technically allow them to drive themselves in certain situations.
Although current legislation states that the driver must always remain in control, these vehicles could legally be defined as ‘self-driving’ if they receive approval and no evidence is found that challenges the vehicle’s ability to self-drive. If the new laws are approved, drivers will be able to legally take their hands off the wheel and pass control over to the vehicle in certain situations.
But are they really self-driving?
One area of concern for vehicle safety groups is that the term ‘self-driving’ is giving drivers an inaccurate view of a vehicle’s capabilities, and that has already led to several fatalities. To be fully ‘self-driving’ or ‘driverless’, a vehicle must be able to get from one destination to another without any form of human control or intervention.
However, the vehicles that we may see on the UK’s roads this year are still a long way from being able to do that safely. Instead, the AA and Thatcham Research, the motor insurers’ automotive research centre, argue that vehicles featuring automated lane-keeping systems should instead be classified as ‘assisted driving’ technology.
Why are driverless cars still a long way away?
There are still all sorts of barriers to having driverless cars on our roads. Sensors that work flawlessly in all weather and visibility conditions must be developed. Cars also need to be taught how to communicate with human drivers and pedestrians. And then there are the so-called edge cases that artificial intelligence can’t always account for. An example would be whether to swerve around a dog that’s sat in the road when a family is walking on the pavement. These all present huge challenges.
Will we ever get there?
Despite the challenges, there’s no doubt that self-driving vehicles will eventually extend mobility options to the elderly, those with disabilities and people who cannot drive themselves. There’s also hope that they’ll reduce the number of accidents on the UK’s roads every year, 85% of which are caused by human error. However, with the stakes so high, it’s only right that progress continues to inch forward slowly.