The Driverless Revolution
Driverless Vehicles are No Longer Fiction
At the end of August, the world’s first self-driving taxis made their debut in Singapore. Driverless cars have been seen before but this was the first consumer trial for cabs without drivers controlling them and a major sign that the driverless revolution is truly on its way.
Once a mere fantasy featured in science fiction stories and films, the idea of driverless cars is very much becoming a reality. No longer is it an ‘if’ they will be on our roads, now it is more a ‘when’. There is still work to be done, challenges to overcome and improvements made, but many advancements have been made in recent years to bring in this new driverless persona.
Autonomous Car History
The idea of driverless and autonomous cars has been around for almost a hundred years, since radio equipment company, Houdina Radio Control, developed the Linrrican Wonder. This was essentially a 1926 Chandler fitted with a transmitting antenna that was radio-controlled, driverless and successfully guided through New York.
Since then driverless car developments have come on a lot, as has automobile technology in general. From General Motors’ Firebirds in the 1950s, which featured an electronic guide system that aimed to ‘rush it over an automatic highway’, to more recent and practical options like the ParkShuttle public transport system in the Netherlands, which uses magnetic guide wires in the road to move.
Mistakes from the past have been improved on, lessons learnt and elements copied from many of these previous attempts to result in the driverless cars of today.
Current State of Driverless Cars
Currently the majority of fully driverless cars are in a trial status, with many predicted to be on the market or in use by taxi firms in the next two to five years. That is assuming all the trials run smoothly. Even manual cars are seeing the effects of autonomous technology creeping into them, with many models featuring automatic car parking systems which perform parallel, perpendicular or angle parking manoeuvres with no driver input.
The driverless taxis trialled in Singapore is the most recent example of fully autonomous vehicles in action in the real world. Developed by nuTonomy, a US based developer of software for self-driving cars, each one is a small electric Renault or Mitsubishi car with nuTonomy software and cameras attached to let them be driverless. They can only run within a 2.6 square mile, with designated pick-up and drop-off stops and a driver sat behind the wheel in case of an emergency.
The next step for the company is for it to unleash a full fleet of self-driving taxis in Singapore by 2018 if the trial is a success. By that time, they could have a lot more competition on their hands though.
The Next Step
The next step for driverless cars is basically to ensure they are as safe as possible and get them on the roads. Google has been developing its own driverless cars for quite a few years now and announced that they have been involved in 14 minor accidents since 2009. This would suggest there is still a lot of work to do, except most of these accidents were down to human drivers own errors.
There are a number more trials of driverless cars and taxis set for the near future as well. Pittsburgh in the USA will be the first place in the world to test out Uber’s self-driving car service. This will make robot driven cars a reality for many Americans, as well as seeing how many people actually trust the technology.
Handing Over Control
Even though what once seemed a dream is almost a reality, it still remains to be seen how successful driverless cars will be. Many people may not trust handing over control of their car or a taxi to a robot, entrusting their lives to a machine that has the roam of the road. There are still a few worries about the driverless revolution such as:
- The complexity of creating and maintaining maps for the cars
- How they will react to different weather conditions
- Making tough decisions (e.g.: swerving to avoid one object into another)
- Cybersecurity issues
- Regulation of driverless cars
Even though many manufacturers of driverless cars believe they will be on the roads in just a couple of years, until these issues are resolved it could be a while longer before the driverless persona takes to the roads.
Image courtesy of iStock.