Picture this: You are on your way to the office brushing up your presentation for an important meeting as you sip a drink, while your car takes care of the traffic. Neatly avoids obstacles by braking or accelerating, and finalizes drops you off before manoeuvring its way to the parking lot, where it will wait for your next command. This is what self-driving cars will do.
Sounds futuristic? It sure is, but that future is closer than you think. Automakers like BMW, Tesla, Mercedes and tech giant Google are all set to unleash their self-driving cars on the roads. A study by BusinessInsider has shown that there will be as many as 10 million cars with either semi- or full-automation features by 2020. Apart from your comfort and convenience, self-driving cars will bring with them several benefits from a socio-economic point of view. No more clogged roads, fatalities from road accidents, or driving fatigue. That is the future of driving, and it’s almost on the horizon.
Semi-autonomous vehicles have arrived
Although complete automation is yet to arrive in the cars of today, many manufacturers have already introduced several automated features that are already contributing to safer roads. Cars can park on their own, warn you if you are violating lane rules, brake if there is threat of a collision, and control your cruising speed. Although many of these semi-autonomous features are found in few cars and almost always exclusively in the high-end models. These are evolving technologies and are bound to have great availability across models very soon.
The future beckons: Let the car takeover!
Fully autonomous cars have gone through the rigors of lab and road tests, and are likely to be available commercially soon. Automobile manufacturers have already realized its ground-breaking potential and invested huge cash piles towards research and analytics in this area. Tesla has already launched auto-pilot in its Model S cars. But more than a dozen leading players in the industry are currently in an advanced stage of their developmental cycles for the automated car. Meanwhile, Google’s autonomous cars have logged a million miles on the roads. And have emerged unscathed with zero road mishaps. Legislations are also changing rapidly to accommodate autonomous cars on the roads, and several states in America have permitted autonomous cars on public roads.
We are obviously on the threshold of an autonomous car market, and this is not lost on automakers like Tesla, Mercedes, GM, Nissan, Toyota, Audi, Volvo, and Peugeot, among many others. The last few months have been a period of frantic activity in this context, with many manufacturers revealing their concept cars for tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles.
Self-driving cars from Google
Self-driving car is a concept very close to Google’s heart. After years of testing, Google is in a position to declare that its autonomous car has arrived. With a million miles under its belt, the Google self-driving car is now out on the streets of Mountain View (California) and Austin (Texas). The car can negotiate safely through city traffic by means of its powerful sensors, which help the car spot obstacles well in time to negotiate around them with consummate ease. Currently, Google uses Lexus SUVs and its own prototype vehicles to test the technology, but hopes for a commercial launch by 2020.
Toyota’s Highway Teammate
Toyota has shared details of its concept car “Highway Teammate,” which lets you push a button and then keep your hands off the wheel; the car will handle your drive from there, so sit back and relax while the car takes you onto the Tokyo highway, negotiates traffic and slows down or accelerates accordingly, and switches lanes at the perfect moment. The Highway Teammate is really a spruced up Lexus GS, but its advanced self-driving features put it in the same bracket as Google’s driverless cars. The car could be commercially released by 2020, which seems to be the magic date for many autonomous cars that are in the concept stage now.
Nissan’s intelligent car
Another hands-off car tested recently on public roads is the Nissan Leaf, which was laden with additional equipment like cameras, radars, lasers, and computer chips. With Nissan, automated driving has the advantage of zero-emissions because it happens to be an electric car. The car is able to recognize and respond to traffic signals, pedestrians, and road intersections. Currently, Nissan’s intelligent self-driving car is bit of a beginner and a ride on it is similar to the experience of being driven by an extra-careful driver. However, like Toyota, Nissan plans to commercialize its autonomous car by the end of this decade.
Autonomous vehicles from Mercedes just around the corner
This year, Mercedes Benz has unveiled several autonomous vehicles that will be ready for the roads very soon. These include cars as well as trucks. The Mercedes F 015 luxury car, which was unveiled at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is more like a living space than a car; passengers can face each other as if in their living rooms while the car takes care of the driving. Later in October, the German carmaker released images of another self-driving concept car called Vision Tokyo with a design that targets the young urban dweller. However, Mercedes scores over the competition in its near-ready self-driving freight transport vehicle Actros equipped with the autonomous “Autobahn Pilot” or “Highway Pilot” system. In a recent road demonstration, the vehicle negotiated the freeway successfully to hint at the future of freight transport, which has tremendous potential for the self-driving technology because such vehicles operate predominantly on the freeway.
There could still be several hurdles before autonomous or self-driving vehicles are seamlessly operating on public roads. Apart from legislative problems, self-driving cars attract the usual hurdles associated with machine intelligence in general: what if the system fails suddenly? What if security is compromised just as we have seen in computer history? Who would be liable in case of a mishap, the machine or you?
However, these are perceived threats that will die out with increasing use of the technology. Self-driving technologies are creating more than a flutter in the auto market, and this is not without reason. Once autonomous vehicles arrive on the roads—and that is not too far away—it might be best to just hand over the controls and enjoy the ride without the fear of human errors. The aged or the visually impaired will no longer have to rely on others for an outing. And time spent in wasteful activities like commuting can be used more productively. As the clock runs down to the launch dates, carmakers are investing billions to ensure that they stay ahead of the race. While they fight it out, the consumer simply needs to wait before being inundated with a choice of self-driving cars. That wait could be for only half a decade, or even less.
Author: @SwiftReactionUK – Baptiste Bouvier