Imagine a world where it will be safe to text and drive … or work, eat, apply makeup, or do whatever it is you’re tempted to do while driving but shouldn’t. In a self-driving car, you can do all those things and more—even catch up on sleep.
People have been talking about self-driving cars practically since the invention of the automobile. But up until just recently, the idea was just that—an idea; self-driving cars existed only in people’s imaginations.
But now the technology is here. Cars are already equipped with innovations such as park assist and adaptive cruise control; features that put the car in control. And if you count experimental mode, self-driving cars are currently on the road in a few states. Manufacturers such as Tesla, BMW, Toyota, Ford, Volvo, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai, and Mercedes are on board to deliver their own versions of driverless vehicles. Google, Uber, Lyft, and Apple are also working on developing self-driving cars.
When will self-driving cars be our reality?
No one knows for sure when—or even if—self-driving cars will be the norm, but with all the players in the game and with all the funds directed toward driverless technology, we are likely to start seeing self-driving cars on the road by 2020, and for them to be commonplace in about 10 years. By 2030, we could see about one in four cars on the road being self-driving, speculates investment researcher David Galland, writing for Forbes. Companies will own most of the cars, in the early years anyway, and people will use self-driving cars as they now use taxis. That could change as costs decrease, which would allow more people to own one if they wanted to.
What needs to happen first?
The technology that allows cars to drive themselves needs to be perfect before society can let driverless cars loose. Otherwise, the potential for tragic accidents is too great. The biggest contender so far for autonomous driving technology is lidar, which stands for light detection and ranging. Lidar, which uses infrared lights to detect its surroundings such as pedestrians, other cars, trees, etc., is superior to other types of sensors like video cameras. Lidar is expensive, as in thousands of dollars per car, which is holding back its adoption by automakers.
Potential results of driverless cars
Fewer accidents: The Centers for Disease Control reports more than 33,000 fatalities from traffic incidents happen each year, many of which occur because of distracted driving. Driver error also happens from tired, impaired, or just plain old bad drivers.
Although human error issues won’t apply to self-driving cars, the question remains as to whether accidents will increase or decrease with them. Heavy rain, for example, could damage the driverless technology on the cars.
Less traffic congestion: Self-driving cars can safely travel fast, such as at speeds of more than 100 mph. And in a process called “platooning,” they can travel in close proximity—about 20 feet apart or less—to other cars that are also traveling fast. That’s compared with a safe-following recommendation of 300 feet at 75 mph that car drivers should be practicing now. Visionaries see “hyper-fast lanes” devoted to platooning with self-driving cars.
Better use of fuel: Constant breaking and accelerating wastes fuel. Less congestion due to driverless cars means cars use less fuel since stop-and-go traffic should be diminished.
No more parking hassles: Your self-driving car can simply drop you off at your destination and then park itself. When you’re ready to leave, you summon it.
Help for disabled people: People who now must rely on public transportation or friends and family to get around will benefit from self-driving cars, which will allow for greater freedom and independence.
Car enthusiasts probably won’t be happy: People who love driving probably won’t be too keen on relinquishing control of their car. There may be room on the road for cars that require drivers alongside driverless cars, but if driverless cars become the norm, society may outlaw cars that require a driver.
Hackers will have a new hobby: Instead of only hacking into computer systems, hackers would probably try to cause mischief on the roads too, hacking the software that controls self-driving vehicles.
What will driverless cars look like?
If you fondly anticipate changes in cars that occur during certain model years, you’ve not seen anything yet. Self-driving cars will probably look nothing like the cars on the road today. The exterior is anyone’s guess. For the interior, the seats don’t have to face the front; they could swivel, making socializing with guests easier. The windshield could also double time as a computer screen, while the interior on the whole could feel more like a living room than a car.