Imagine being able to ride to work as a passenger in your own car? Or having the opportunity to read the paper and enjoy your coffee without soiling your freshly dry-cleaned business suit? With the impending rise of self-driving cars, this could be a reality sooner than you think.
Proponents of the autonomous tech movement believe these vehicles could solve traffic congestion problems, reduce accidents due to cars communicating with each other, and finally rid the roads of drunk and dangerous drivers.
So how close are we to surrendering control of the wheel to a machine, telling it where we want to go and sitting back to enjoy the ride? Some people in the industry believe it’ll be within five years.
“Autonomous cars are a very big development that could be adopted by the whole industry,” BT’s Managing Director of External Innovation Jean-Marc Frangos said in an interview with BT.com.
“The exhibit was so large at CES this year they had to move it into a separate pavilion. There was just too much to see.”
Arguably leading the charge towards a fully autonomous future is Google. It has been working on self-driving car technology since 2009.
Its pioneering efforts rose from the legendary X Labs of so-called ‘moonshot’ ideas. Such is the ambition and scale of progress, the project has been spun to a separate company called Waymo, which is already valued at $70 billion (around £51bn).
“Our vehicles have sensors and software that are designed to detect pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles, road work and more from a distance of up to two football fields away in all directions,” the company says on its website.
It’s not all about the automotive technology. Essentially, the cars are still cars. Beyond the hardware, Google’s mapping, search engine, voice and image recognition and machine learning advances are what makes this possible. It already knows the streets and the locations of businesses, and it can recognise your voice and discern road signs and act upon them.
“I can see autonomous cars as being one of the key applications for machine learning moving forward,” BT’s Frangos said.
“There’s a combination of reading radar sensors, cameras and lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors putting together a hybrid map that can be interpreted by the on board AI of the car and uploaded to the network.
After racking up more than three million miles on real-world roads, Google is ready to let residents of Phoenix, Arizona take a ride in Waymo’s Fiat-Chrysler Pacifica minivans.
Autopilot and Tesla
In terms of vehicles that are currently on the road, it’s Tesla’s electric cars that are leading the way. Its groundbreaking Autopilot technology is the most advanced driver assist tech currently in existence. It helps users stay in their lanes, change lanes, keep up with traffic speeds and even steer on curvy highways.
What many people don’t know is full self-driving capability is now built into the hardware of every new Tesla Motors car. Once given the go-ahead from transport authorities, all the firm needs to do if flick a switch to enable it.
That could still be years away and, in the meantime, the safety of Tesla’s system is still being debated.
Fears were raised when, in 2016, a Tesla driver who had ignored safety warnings from Autopilot died when his car ploughed into a tractor-trailer.
The National Transport Safety Board in the US ruled the Autopilot “system gave far too much leeway to the driver to divert his attention." Tesla has since altered the system to ensure drivers keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times.
The old guard
Ford is one of the existing automotive giants hoping to relieve commuters of actually driving their cars. It wants to have self-driving cars on the road by 2021.
Earlier this month, Ford even disguised a human driver as a seat in order to test pedestrian reactions to self-driving cars.
It’s part of a wider plan to establish lighting protocols for autonomous cars that will inform us of the car’s intentions in the same way eye contact or a wave from a human driver does today.
In a mid-September blog post, it explained: “Our simulated self-driving Transit Connect was equipped with a light bar on top of the windshield - near to where a pedestrian or bicyclist would look to make eye contact with the vehicle’s driver.
“The signal slowly pulses a white light back and forth if it is yielding, blinks rapidly if it is about to accelerate from a stop, or remains completely solid if it is in active self-driving mode, meaning it is simply driving along the road like any other vehicle.”
Non-traditional car manufacturers
Aside from Google, many more tech‘s big guns are also joining traditional auto-makers in pursuing self-driving car technology.
The ridesharing app pioneers Uber and Lyft are very much in to the idea that drivers could be dispensed with altogether. That, of course, would allow them to keep the whole fare and put a lot of people out of work.
Uber is probably a little bit further along with its plans. It has partnered with Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler with a view to creating a fleet of self-driving Uber cars. However, Uber tests were suspended in March following an accident.
Meanwhile, Samsung has just opened up a $300 million fund dedicated to the advancement of the technology for autonomous cars. However, the firm is adamant it will not be building a vehicle of its own.
Samsung’s approach seems sensible.
The innovative minds the tech industry will perhaps have the important say in the advent of driverless cars. Most of the software and machine learning capabilities is being created at their end.
However, building a functioning, reliable automobile is no joke. It’s a risky business to enter and winning over enough people to place their trust in a tech company, who’s phones breakdown way more often than cars should, is a longshot.
The future is probably a car built by a manufacturer like Ford and supported by the wondrous array of tools Google and others have created to make this science fiction dream a near-reality.
Read more in our Future of Technology series: