The future of transportation is nearly upon us -- cars driving themselves. This technology, previously the stuff of tv shows and movies, is actually becoming a reality on the road, with companies like Tesla successfully delivering a self-driving system to their newer vehicles and many more firms close behind. The allure of self-driving cars is clear -- more relaxing and restful drives, enhanced road-trip experience, accident prevention, etc. This blog aims to cover the primary benefits of self-driving cars as I perceive them as well as to summarize the current state of this technology.
Benefits of Autonomous Vehicles
Please note this list is in no way meant to be exhaustive, instead, my intention is to share with you the possibilities of self-driving cars that most excite me personally. Also, quick disclaimer, I or Drover in NO WAY support you taking your hands off the wheel or sending emails (or sleeping, ahhh) while driving a current-year Tesla with autopilot enabled. As seen from the fatal Tesla crash in May 2016, Tesla's autopilot, while amazing and super cool, is not reliable enough for us to completely entrust our lives to it without paying attention to the road ourselves. Current computers and sensors cannot replace the judgment and skill of a human driver. But, now that that's out of the way, let us dream and imagine.
1) Car drives become a time for efficiency or rest - ok, so first off, I am talking about self-driving cars years in the future here... but, provided that every car on the road is self-driving, it's fully legal, safe, etc etc, you (a car driver) no longer have to pay any attention to the road! You could sit in the back seat sending emails, reading a book, watching a movie, or taking a nap and hypothetically, the car would not need you at all.
2) Road trips instantly get better - Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love driving. However, I can personally attest to how taxing it can be to drive for long stretches of time on road trips, like the time I drove 11 hours with 1 stop from Nashville back to Florida for summer break from Vandy. Imagine if you didn't actually have to drive on a road trip. I don't know about you, but driving would instantly become my preferred mode of long-distance travel over flying. For longer trips, you would have your car with you in your destination city, and during the 'drive' to your travel spot you could sleep, watch movies, read, catch up on work, etc etc.
3) Decreased accidents - Several videos have already come out of Tesla autopilot anticipating and preventing accidents. If every car on the road was self-driving and potentially coordinated with each other, there could potentially exist a reality in which traffic accidents are a freak occurrence once in a blue moon, as opposed to one of the leading causes of death as car accidents are now.
4) Faster traffic - again, if cars will be controlled by computers that can sync with one another and anticipate other vehicles' movements, then traffic should be able to move faster as human error will be largely removed from the equation. It is not safe to fully trust autopilot right now because self-driving Teslas are less than 1% of vehicles on the road. But, in a time when all vehicles on the road are autonomous, then cars should technically be able to drive much faster because no movement, turn, or lane change would be unpredictable to the computer network.
Status of Self-Driving Car Tech
While all of the above sounds super far away, we are really not that far off. For one, Tesla, as I have mentioned, has made leaps and bounds in developing autonomous vehicles. Their Autopilot feature are equipped with sensors and on-board computers which, according to their website are, "needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver". The website further states that 8 cameras provide 360 degrees of vision with up to a 250-meter range. Additionally, Teslas feature twelve ultrasonic sensors (~500-meter range) and forward-facing radar. With this technology comes a plethora of other awesome features like Autosteering, Smart Summon (by which you can actually call the car to you from your garage or a parking spot without being inside of it), collision warnings, etc.
As you can see from the above info which is only a cursory glance at Tesla's autopilot system, Tesla has made the most significant advances in self-driving car tech. With that said, Google is also trying to enter the market with their Waymo project. They claim to have logged 2 million self-driven miles. Impressive, but still weak in comparison to Tesla's over 230 million self-driven miles. Still, competition is necessary in any industry and Waymo lacks the advantage Tesla has of already having cars in the hands of consumers. While you can by a self-driving Tesla right now, Waymo has not yet released any vehicles to the market. With that said, they have the similar goal of increasing driver safety and reducing accidents on the roads.
Finally, Uber has been working hard to develop self-driving cars as part of what is most likely a plan to remove human drivers from their service as soon as that becomes legal. For now, however, they are piloting their vehicles in Pittsburgh with human drivers to ensure safety.