Are We Ready To Take Our Hands Off The Wheel And Let Cars Do The Driving?

August 31, 2016

Starting off as a simple mechanical device created to increase the ease, speed and distance of travel, the car has quickly evolved to become an integral part of our lives.

person with hands on the car wheel driving on an empty street

Starting off as a simple mechanical device created to increase the ease, speed and distance of travel, the car has quickly evolved to become an integral part of our lives.

Over the last twenty years, powered in part by the increased power of computers, automotive technology has progressed like never before. Now, cars are on the verge of becoming fully autonomous and are poised to transform the way we travel in a whole new way.

Autonomous cars present us with a new future which will negate the need for consistent human interaction and control. In this utopia, cars will have the potential to become mobile gyms, workstations or sleeping quarters. Roads will become a lot safer too. Drink-driving, for example, will no longer be a danger. Currently, around 90% of accidents are caused by human error. When vehicles are controlled by accurate, infallible digital networks and sensors, not only will accidents be a rarity, speeding and parking fines will be a thing of the past too.

Instead of ferrying one person to work then sitting in a car park for eight hours, cars could function around the clock, making them more economical. Energy consumption will decrease as efficient driving becomes the norm and fossil fuels will eventually be replaced with solar panels and turbines that contribute to battery life.

Of course, removing human control brings new complications. For example, machines replacing humans in transport job roles will cause massive workforce realignment and the insurance industry will have to adapt its stance as the driver is removed from the responsibility equation. Culturally, with the increased availability of vehicles, the need for an individual to own a car might become a thing of the past.

Interestingly, although more people will be reliant on them, cars will likely become less of a personal, aspirational commodity and much more of a functional one. Cars will also no longer be limited by driver-relative design. Autonomous vehicles can be created predominantly with function in mind: a vehicle built for commuters to host business meetings doesn't need wing mirrors and a steering wheel, but a compact desk, Wi-Fi connectivity and a coffee machine.

Comparing performance and horse-power becomes somewhat superfluous when heading out for a casual drive is replaced with hooking into a nationwide network that controls speed, economy of fuel use and braking. Perhaps when driving is no longer necessary for travel, a trip to the race track for some 'old-fashioned' recreational driving will become far more popular!

However, all of this begs the question, are we ready to trust machines and let go of control completely? Perhaps not quite. But, in the same way we learnt to trust computers to handle some of our most critical tasks, as technology develops and is proven reliable, this will surely change.

Safety is a crucial factor here. If autonomous vehicles are proven safe, we'll learn to trust them. The only way to reach that point of infallibility is through thorough, top-level testing of the product before it goes to market.

A future where driverless cars are the norm can seem more like movie magic than reality right now, but believe it or not we're already travelling towards that reality at speed. The building blocks of driverless cars are on the road: crash prevention systems already warn drivers of an impending obstacle and apply the brakes if they don’t react fast enough. Self-parking technologies are also already widely available.

Major manufacturers are investing significantly in research and development programmes. Mercedes-Benz have already unveiled an early-stage automatic steering system and companies like Toyota and Nissan are presenting their plans for self-driving cars, which could be available as early as 2020. And, let's not forget the digital giants climbing aboard the wagon; friendly-faced Google cars have been test-driving through Californian streets for several months.

Even governments are embracing the journey. Germany has just announced a large initiative to prepare for the introduction of autonomous driving laws and UK roads are due to see tests being conducted before the end of 2016. Those all-important technical industry standards are currently being defined to make sure these vehicles are safe once they become available for use. The 'ISO 26262 Road Vehicles Functional Safety' standard is being applied and revised to solve any gaps that arise as technology is tested.

The world is getting ready for a future without drivers. Unprecedented change is afoot – it's time to buckle up and get ready for the journey.