Where We Are Going, We Don’t Need… Drivers

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Every once in a while, innovation changes the way the entire game is played. 

Remember the telegraph? In the 18th and 19th century, this long-outdated piece of technology was considered revolutionary. The telegraph was the smartphone of the Old West era – it didn’t only transform lives but also disrupted the very fabric of that time’s existence.

Self-driving cars will have a similar impact. 

For the time being, the first fully automated self-driving car still seems a bit futuristic. With leading manufacturers postponing release dates all the time, some experts argue that today’s drivers won’t live to take a nap or see a movie in their car while commuting. 

The first prototypes are already here, but it’s still too early to tell. 

Here’s everything we know about self-driving cars so far:

Where Are the First Self-Driving Cars?

The first self-driving cars can be seen cruising down the boulevards of Phoenix, Arizona. Others have found their testing ground in the geo-fenced areas of Texas. The highly controllable senior living communities in San Jose and Florida are just as good for testing. 

The leader of this experimental first phase is surprisingly not Tesla, though Elon Musk’s tech giant has announced the world’s first self-driving car system long before everyone else, in 2014. The whopping 8 million self-driven miles belong to another company – Waymo. 

As we speak, Waymo is gearing up for a driverless taxi service

The company’s second-runner is Lyft, whose Las Vegas-based commercial self-driving program boasts 5,000 successful rides. And Tesla, Waymo, and Lyft are not alone. Other key players that are making progress include Optimus Ride, Voyage, Aptiv, Zoox, Uber, and Ford. 

Why Do We Doubt What’s Already Here?

So how come there are still those who don’t believe in this idea?

If self-driving cars are already on the streets, then where is the skepticism coming from? In all the aforementioned use cases, self-driving cars are still in the testing phase. They are driving in controlled environments, avoiding heavy traffic, and executing written commands.

This means that robotic cars are still far away from being fully automated. Even more importantly, they are still very much unprepared to make smart on-the-spot decisions when navigating through heavy traffic or driving on unfamiliar roads. The best they can do is rely on GPS.

In reality, self-driving cars are still not equipped to deal with uncertainties.

A recent test by Consumer Reports has witnessed Tesla’s self-driving system called Navigate initiating unsafe lane changes and attempting passes that would get you tickets in many states. Another study conducted by Georgia Tech found that smart cars don’t recognize dark skin tones.

What Exactly Are We Waiting for Then?

Automation comes in several levels, making the terms “self-driving” and “fully automated” (as opposed to “manually operated”) a bit too vague. On level 1, only the small steering and acceleration tasks are performed by the car without human intervention. That’s automation too. 

When we’re talking about self-driving cars, our mind wanders to level 3 and 4. Though level 3 still requires a human driver, the car is able to perform all critical functions by itself in certain conditions. These are the self-driving cars we can now see cruising around gated communities. 

But the real self-driving car implies level 4 automation. 

This is the car that allows you to sleep, read, or watch a movie in the middle of the highway with rain pouring down. It can avoid all the random jaywalkers, parking violations, and gridlocks while driving in a metropolitan area. The full autonomy of Level 4 automation remains unachieved. 

Innovation Happens One Step at a Time

Self-driving cars still have a long road to go, that’s true. 

But progress is being made across the industry, with household names such as GM, Ford, Honda, and Toyota being closer to the first collision – and congestion-free vehicle in history. Most of these companies are announcing “nearly fully autonomous” cars by the end of 2021

Here are predictions from the world’s top automakers:

  • Ford – “a true self-driving level 4 vehicle” by 2021. 
  • Honda – “self-driving on the highway” by 2020. 
  • Toyota – “self-driving on the highway” by 2020.
  • Renault-Nissan – “urban driving” by 2020, “truly driverless cars” by 2025.
  • Volvo – “self-driving on the highway” by 2020.
  • Hyundai – “self-driving on the highway” by 2020, “urban driving” by 2030.
  • Daimler – “nearly fully autonomous” by early 2020.
  • Fiat-Chrysler – “some self-driving on the road” by 2021.
  • BMW – “fully self-driving” by 2021.

The year 2021 seems to be around the corner, but don’t be surprised if these due dates change a couple of times by then. Innovations such as this should not be rushed. Otherwise, skeptics would be right to call self-driving cars a “delusional tech optimism rooted in greed.”

Let’s give these trail-blazers some time to put safety first. 

How Will Self-Driving Cars Affect Our Lives?

Once they’re truly here, self-driving cars have the potential to change everything.

Ready or not, the society we live in will need to adjust to things good and bad. Hopefully, there’d be no more traffic accidents – after all, the main premise, reason, and goal for the development of autonomous vehicles are to eliminate human error from the equation. 

Driverless cars could reduce the number of accidents by 90%

But that’s not all.

With transportation becoming more reliable and convenient (read: no traffic conjunctions), people from the metropolitan areas might feel a reduced need for owning their own vehicles. It’ll cost way less to summon a driverless taxi than to buy and maintain an automobile. 

This would not only help urban centers evolve past driving areas and parking, but it would also leave a lasting mark on the environment. Self-driving cars have the potential to reduce the carbon footprint as well, which could mean the difference between utopia and dystopia. 

The Future of Self-Driving Is Here at Last

Whether you’ll join the optimists or the skeptics is entirely up to you. 

But there’s one more thing to consider before you do:

Only two decades ago, a built-in CD player was the most futuristic feature in your car.

Today, we have budget vehicles such as Mazda CX-3, the company’s lowest-priced car, offering perks such as automatic brakes, lane-assist technology, and blind spot monitoring. The automotive industry is advancing at a fast pace, making cars better and safer each day. 

According to some predictions, self-driving vehicles might become a $7 trillion market by 2050. Essentially, these deadlines don’t matter. What’s important is that we’re seeing innovating add-ons, features, and AI-driven integrations with every new model that hits the market.

 We’re bearing witness to another revolutionary change.