Autonomous vehicles: Will traditional driving become obsolete?

driver-with-steering-wheel

Looking back to this century and the one prior, with all its technological advancements, there may be one archaic practice that will seem barely believable to future generations. Did they actually drive their cars themselves? OMG! (or whatever its future cultural acronym happens to be).

A controlled future?

Some time ago we covered the burgeoning autonomous technology. But three years on, more and more real world driving aids are beginning to bubble through from the concepts and development labs of the major car manufacturers. The result? A future, it seems, where we don’t actually control the car ourselves. Instead we will be ferried from A to B by our chosen vehicle without so much as a turn of the wheel. And this could be happening sooner than we think.

Currently, driving aids are appearing at an ever-expanding rate. Features such as self-parking (which can already be seen on the humble Ford Fiesta amongst others) lines up your car with the parking space. It then magically performs the dreaded driving manoeuvre itself. Also, advanced parking features on high end cars like the BMW 7 Series can allow you to park your car using a touchscreen in the key fob. You can even have your executive saloon pull out of your garage and meet you at the door; a service above and beyond anything we have so far.

These days we can now see Lidar-based active lane assist appearing on cars from manufacturers like Audi, Mercedes and VW. This handy piece of technology will correct your car if you start to drift across lanes, gently nudging you onto the straight and narrow. The new Volvo XC90 will even automatically brake if it senses danger or approaching T junctions, and its adaptive cruise control can regulate the distances between you and the car in front.

Love driving? Or love being driven?

Now these features are meant to assist the driver, and potentially save lives, which is an incredible advance. However, it’s likely that the next generation of high tech cars are set to remove any interaction between the driver and their car. It’s handy for those who want to catch up on emails and close deals during the bustling morning commute, or for those who have a car full of highly charged, bored children who could now hog all of mum’s attention, whilst the car itself keeps a safe eye on the road.

But what about those of us who actually enjoy the experience of driving their beloved motor? Do you really want to give up that feeling of cruising down those winding country roads on a sunny day in your low slung sports car? Do you really want to hand over that thrill of gliding around sweeping bends to your self-driving car, so that you can take a selfie on your iPhone 10 (11? 12?) Well ok, maybe some of you actually do. Your choice.

But wait. A recent study has found that more than 50% of UK drivers would feel their safety was at risk if they had to share the road with autonomous vehicles. The UK’s response to the study - carried out jointly by the London School of Economics and Goodyear - was found to be approximately 16% higher when compared to 10 other European countries who were also surveyed. The main sticking points? Despite being autonomous, a steering wheel should still be fitted (so as there’s a comforting feeling of being in control), and that the vehicle could malfunction at any point, presumably in the same manner which Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey did. You’d probably think twice about owning one if your name was Dave…

In the present day, one of the most rounded views of how this self-driving future may look is from high end electric car maker, Tesla. One current feature of Tesla is autopilot, which is a combination of various different technologies. The autopilot feature means that under the right conditions (namely motorways), the car will keep you in the correct lane, speed up and slow down dependent of traffic flow, and even change lanes automatically when appropriate.

However, these are still touted as semi-autonomous, as you still have to do the ‘hard’ work the majority of the time. Currently, the app-based taxi service Uber are trialling fully-autonomous taxis. The end goal is to be able to request a cab from your smartphone and a driverless car will appear to transport you to your destination, removing the need for the automated, prerequisite small talk of “Been busy tonight?” or “What time are you on until?”

The perhaps comforting news though is that these self-driving taxis still contain a back-up driver due to safety precautions. So, for now at least, the small talk pleasantries will remain.

Driverless cars ARE coming

In summary, there are still no truly autonomous cars available on the market in late 2016. And without the sufficient legislation for their use, the clarification on liability for insurance claims (who’s actually liable if you’re in an accident?) or widespread testing alongside non-autonomous traffic, we may have to wait a little while longer until we see them. But make no mistake, driver-less cars are coming thanks to ever evolving technological advancements from car makers such as Volvo. And it seems that what you once saw in your favourite futuristic Sci-Fi film may become the norm sooner than you’d expect. Now; where’s my hover car?

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