Since its inception, the car industry has seen manufacturers constantly improve their designs, making cars safer, more efficient, more powerful and cheaper. After more than a century of improvement we are about to witness the most radical and rapid change of all – the autonomous, or “self-driving,” car. This will, ultimately, affect every road user.
To think that the autonomous car is merely a result of continuous and gradual improvement enormously understates the achievement. Designing an autonomous car isn’t rocket science. It’s way more difficult.
Automating a train, an aircraft or spacecraft is not as hard as you might think, since direction and speed changes are usually small and relatively straightforward.
Likewise, a rail track, the sky or the void of outer space are fairly predictable. As a result, varying degrees of automation have been applied to rail, air and space vehicles for decades.
Harder than rocket science
The task confronting an autonomous car on busy roads is daunting. Not only does the vehicle have to guide itself to its destination without a dedicated rail, it has to contend with a far less controlled environment – other road users, pedestrians and all sorts of random influences and events.
An autonomous car has to be able to negotiate diverse situations ranging from tight inner-city car parks to fast freeways. And it must operate faultlessly and be able to safely interact with other users.
An autonomous car must have the ability to sense and correctly interpret its surrounding. It must also be able to adapt to changes in the surroundings. To do this, technologies such as radar, laser ranging, GPS and a variety of cameras operating in multiple spectrums are used extensively. Behind all that functionality is some impressively hefty computing power and complex software.
Despite the scale of the task, there are already vehicles capable of driving autonomously. Google has been showcasing its fleet of driverless cars for a few years now, and pretty much every mainstream manufacturer is rapidly working on the technology. Conservative commentators have suggested we will be able to buy the technology in about 20 years but in all likelihood it will be way earlier than that, possibly between five to 10 years at most.
But a more profound consideration than the engineering achievement is the scale of the change it will present to all of us.
Future looks different
Autonomous vehicles will fundamentally alter how we view transportation. Take the debate over road and rail funding for instance. In a sense a road and a railway line amount to the same thing, a prepared surface designed to a let a wheel turn on it.
What effect will the ability to have fleets of driverless buses carry passengers have on the notion of laying dedicated iron tracks for trains?
The same possibilities hold true for freight. A truck that never has to stop so the driver can rest would be of massive appeal to the logistics industry.
It is likely that the taxi industry’s battle with Uber and other ride-share services will be minuscule compared to the threat a fleet of robot cars would pose to the taxi industry’s business model. Whether many people will even bother buying a car when a well- maintained autonomous car is only a screen push away is another key question.
While there might be winners and losers from an economic perspective, everyone will benefit from the improved safety autonomous vehicles could bring. Most accidents are caused by human error, so imagine the effect on the road toll when you remove that key variable.
The technology also has potential benefits in terms of increasing mobility for those unable to drive.
Another key part of autonomous vehicle technology is the ability of vehicles to be able to talk to each other to warn of hazards. Essentially they will be able to coordinate their progress for the benefit of everyone.
This should make congestion far less of a problem which in turn would have environmental benefits associated with not having so many cars idling in traffic.
In short, many of the benefits will be realised by those other than the technology’s purchasers.
But we will not wake up one day and every car on the road will be autonomous. Their introduction will be gradual. So what will be the effect of a mixed fleet of autonomous and non- autonomous cars?
While autonomous vehicles will clearly have a lot of benefits, there are still many unknowns. Maybe there are even some ethical considerations to ponder before handing the keys to Robbie the robot.
There will certainly need to be some answers in the field of liability – who do we blame if a car does crash? Is the human in the car a passenger or an operator?
To blow away some of this cloud, RACV has just commissioned research into autonomous vehicles which should provide some fascinating insights. Stay tuned.