After more than a century of gradual steps to improve the design of cars, we are about to witness the most radical and rapid change of all – the self-driving or autonomous car. This will affect every road user.
It's going to be a quite remarkable achievement.
Automating a train, an aircraft or spacecraft is much simpler than a car because their direction and speed changes are usually small and relatively straightforward and because they operate in more controlled environments.
As a result, varying degrees of automation have been applied to rail, air and space vehicles for decades.
To deliver a self-driving or autonomous car is something else again.
Harder than rocket science
The task confronting a self-driving car on a busy road is daunting. Not only does the vehicle have to guide itself to its destination without a dedicated rail, it has to contend with 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.
A self-driving car must have the ability to sense and correctly interpret its surrounding. It must also be able to adapt to change. To do this, technologies such as radar, laser ranging, GPS and a variety of cameras 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 cars that can drive themselves. Google has been showing off its fleet of driverless cars for a few years now, and pretty much every mainstream manufacturer is working on their own models. In all likelihood it’ll be between five to 10 years at most before we will be able to buy the technology.
But a bigger consideration than just the engineering is how much it will affect every one of us.
The 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 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.
The taxi industry’s battle with Uber and others will be minuscule compared to the threat of a fleet of robot cars. Whether people will even bother buying a car when a well maintained autonomous car is only a screen push away is something else to think about.
While there will be winners and losers economically, everyone will benefit from the improved safety autonomous cars should bring. Most accidents are caused by human error, so imagine the effect on the road toll when you remove that factor.
The technology will also increase mobility for those unable to drive.
Another key part of autonomous vehicle technology is their ability 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 will have environmental benefits as there will be fewer 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?
Still many unknowns
Autonomous cars clearly have a lot of benefits but 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 with 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, I will be talking at the 2016 ITS World Congress about how the autonomous car will affect the average road user. I’ll be looking at how we can best get the message out there and talk about people’s concerns with this technology. Stay tuned.