When will autonomous vehicles become reality?
Well, they already are. Testing is going on across the globe, but at the end of last year, Waymo, the company that came out of Google’s self-driving-car project, began running self-driving car services for paying customers in the US state of Arizona.
However, the vehicles used in Waymo’s commercial project are still manned by a safety driver who’s on hand to take the wheel should anything go wrong. What’s more, some prominent critics, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, have publicly warned that true autonomous vehicles that can function totally without human assistance are actually much further off than many people seem to think. Even Waymo’s own CEO, John Krafcik, has said that “autonomy will always have constraints.”
Should they be allowed on public roads?
It depends who you ask. In 2018 California’s department of Motor Vehicles started allowing car makers and tech firms to test autonomous vehicles on public roads. In most cases, these test vehicles are manned by a human driver who can take control if ‘a failure of the autonomous technology is detected’. But in October 2018, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles gave the all-clear for Waymo to test self-driving cars on public roads without a human in the driver’s seat.
In other countries and jurisdictions, law-makers have been less enthusiastic. Despite the British government predicting that connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) would be on UK roads by 2021, the transport committee of the London Assembly has poured cold water on the prospect of the vehicles being let loose on the streets of the capital any time soon.
A report published last year said: “There is much hype around CAVs becoming a feature of our roads in the imminent future. This is not likely to be the case, with 2030 to 2040 more realistic for widespread rollout.” It’s thought that the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, wants to prioritise a culture of car-sharing before focusing on autonomous technology.
How will they change our lives?
For one thing, they could re-shape our cities. In a series on the potential impacts of autonomous vehicles, accountancy firm KPMG suggested that driverless cars’ ability to pick people up and drop them off on demand means that “car parks could be located in cheaper, out of town locations”. Azeem Azhar of the Exponential View has said that advanced control systems could make it possible for cars to be ‘platooned’, travelling along roads bumper-to-bumper, even at great speed. Both of these things would drastically reduce the space required for cars, and could lead to pronounced changes in town planning and the design of cities.
Meanwhile, Tom Goodwin, author of Digital Darwinism, argues that the advent of self-driving cars is likely to result in a paradigm-shift that will drastically alter our understanding of what ‘a car’ is. Cars could be transformed from things that we use to get from A to B into spaces where we have meetings, sleep, or even get dentistry work done. (He’s serious.)
How will they work?
The best way for truly autonomous vehicles to function, and the amount of processing power and data required, is still open to debate. However, it also seems likely that self-driving cars will have to make decisions that are not just technical or logistical, but ethical as well.
What happens, for example, in situations in which some kind of accident is inevitable?
It seems intuitive to programme autonomous cars to preserve as many human lives as possible, but what if there’s a choice between preserving the life of two innocent bystanders, or three people in a car that has broken multiple traffic laws? And is it better to swerve to avoid one pregnant woman, or three elderly men all in their nineties?
A team of psychologists and computer scientists from MIT decided to crowd-source the views of real people via a website and questionnaire called ‘The Moral Machine’. The findings, which were published in the journal Nature, aren’t intended to directly influence the design of autonomous vehicles, but they do shed light on some of the complications that might arise.
Who will be the early adopters?
Generally speaking, new consumer technology tends to be embraced first by young, wealthy, metropolitan people. But that assumption might not hold true for autonomous vehicles.
Voyage is a Silicon Valley startup that’s betting on the elderly being a significant early market for self-driving cars. The company is testing its autonomous vehicles (AVs) in The Villages, a retirement community of 125,000 people in Florida. According to Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron, the simple, easy-to-navigate streets of The Villages, as well as its residents’ requirements for transport solutions mean that it could be the ideal place for the technology to enjoy widespread adoption. ‘We expect it to be the first city in the world to adopt AVs as the primary means of transport,” he said.