The 1950s and 60s were bizarre. Science-fiction writers and mechanical engineers sold us dreams of a utopian future and the promise of self-cleaning houses and self-driving cars. To them, the future – also known as ‘the year 2000’ – was dominated by total automation in every aspect of our daily lives. And the American cartoon series, “The Jetsons”, with their fully-automated house and self-flying family estate, was seen as less of a fictional cartoon – which, to be sure, is absolutely what it was – and more of a promise of life in the future.
Of course, 2000 came and went (we’re now seventeen years into ‘the future’) and, unless you’re an “early adopter” of all things tech, I doubt your kitchen table is as self-cleaning as the Jetsons would’ve liked. Turns out automation isn’t really the ubiquitous thing everyone would have in the future. In fact, almost nothing, other than a few household appliances that still require programming and car transmissions, is automated. But that’s all about to change. You see, self-driving cars are very much a thing, and are very much here today … Kinda.
Before we get into where we stand technologically with self-driving (or autonomous) cars, let’s take a moment and look at their promise. According to Reported Road Casualties Great Britain, the top accident causes are distracted driving, speeding, drunk driving, and reckless driving. Each of which is a fault of the driver and can be avoided by simply removing the driver altogether. Furthermore, consider driving conditions. Most of us aren’t Lewis Hamilton and haven’t the reflexes required to successfully manoeuvre a car travelling at speed when we encounter a deer or a sudden rain shower. Autonomous cars promise to eliminate these concerns by eliminating the driver entirely. And only recently has technology advanced to the point where this is not only economically viable, but safer than the alternative.
As I said, self-driving cars are kinda here. And that’s because they ‘kinda’ are. You can certainly buy one, but you can’t really use one in the real world. At the moment, fully self-driving cars exist on the private race tracks and drawing boards of companies like Tesla, Google, and apparently Apple. Very rarely will you catch an adorable, yet timid, self-driving car traversing the streets of Mountain View. And if you do catch a glimpse, it’s worth noting the highly skilled engineer sat behind the wheel “just in case”. That engineer is there because while American tech companies spend billions on investment, and are pretty much capable of driving on their own, the rules, regulations, and laws governing the use of self-driving cars are a far behind.
The reason laws haven’t caught up is because most people are still incredibly sceptical of the technology. And rightfully so. After all, there’s do driver. And that’s still quite weird. A handful of accidents isn’t helping win hearts and minds, either. As a result of public perception still siding on weirdness, there’s been more incentive on politicians to limit or even restrict self-driving cars than giving them free reign and autonomy to do as they please. *Yes, I realise they’re yet to become self-aware.
There is a middle ground. In 2014 Tesla Motors introduced its “Autopilot” via an update to the car’s firmware. Autopilot allows the driver to switch the car from standard driver input to a semi-autonomous driving mode that allows a computer to change lanes, adjust speeds, come to a full stop, and follow road maps almost perfectly. And currently, with its most recent iteration of Autopilot, the company claims “All Tesla vehicles produced in our factory, including Model 3, have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.” High-end Mercedes, BMWs, and Volkswagens come equipped with similar – though less technologically capable – systems as well. Ford is even working on introducing more affordable options. And as more and more affordable vehicles are equipped with self-driving technologies, the more data engineers have to help improve their safety and reliability. And that data is working because recently a Tesla Models S was able to predict an accident and appropriately slow the vehicle before it also became involved in the inevitable crash. This is basically magic. And eventually, as people become more comfortable with the magic – er – the technology and start realising the serious safety benefits that come from eliminating the possibility of human error, legal restrictions will ease and widespread adoption will follow.
Self-driving cars are here and the studies show they’re a lot better at driving than us mere mortals. As Britain is known for its incredibly safe motorways as it is, the introduction of autonomous vehicles promises to further improve road safety and make driving in traffic less tedious for millions. And even though this might not be the future the creators of ‘The Jetsons’ envisioned the year 2000 to be, it’s quite clear self-driving cars are definitely a thing.