The hottest new technology in automotive circles is the autonomous vehicle. These cars manage every aspect of their own operation, meaning that human drivers are relegated to near-obsolescence. Although this innovation seems like something out of the pages of science-fiction, consumer-ready models are expected to hit the streets within a decade. Many look forward to cool, self-driving tech, but a sizable portion of the public at large has reservations about it.

How Autonomous Vehicles Work

Driverless vehicles employ LIDAR arrays, video cameras and other systems to obtain a 360-degree view of their surroundings. This info is fed into on-board computers that generate a virtual model of the environment. Using high-tech programming algorithms, the automobiles determine the appropriate courses of action. Changes of speed, lane positioning and turns are all handled automatically; no human intervention is required.

Internet search pioneer Google is probably furthest along in its efforts to bring self-driving automobiles to the masses. Its vehicles are already being tested on public roadways. There’s plenty of competition from other automakers, however, like Tesla Motors and Audi. Most traditional car manufacturers seem to be adopting a cautious approach of incrementally adding automated features to their new models.

How Autonomous Cars Work

The Potential of Self-Driving Cars

Driverless automobiles hold out the promise of enabling people with reduced mobility to go about their tasks without inconvenience. Even people who can drive may prefer to relax, read a book or catch up on their email correspondence instead of personally taking the wheel. Ride-sharing and taxicab services could be transformed by the availability of fully autonomous cars that can respond to market demands without having to be manually routed or driven by people. As vehicles become smarter, they’ll almost certainly integrate with current communications infrastructure to cooperate with each other and an array of connected platforms, like home automation equipment, security systems and road infrastructure.

Beyond the Technical Hurdles…

Before these capabilities become a reality, self-driving cars need to overcome quite a few hurdles. Perhaps most immediately pressing is the fact that current laws, often originally designed with horse-and-buggy vehicles in mind, aren’t equipped to handle the unique aspects of driverless cars. Most rules surrounding liability and negligence operate with the hitherto unquestioned assumption that a single driver is in control of an automobile whenever it’s on the road. Divisions of responsibility between motorists, car manufacturers and insurance companies would have to be worked out before this technology becomes popular.

Other concerns focus on the complicated computers employed in these vehicles. Driverless cars are especially susceptible to hacking, software bugs and other computer-related issues. One shudders to think what terrorists could do with a fleet of self-driving cars. They might be able to conduct sabotage and generate mayhem without needing members of their organizations to put themselves at risk. Meanwhile, errors in programming could lead to dangerous situations even if all parties involved are acting with the best of intentions.

Even if these technical drawbacks are adequately addressed, there are centuries of human psychology at work, which may make it difficult for people to accept having a computer fully in charge of their motor vehicles. Many people enjoy the feeling of freedom and power that comes from choosing the path they’re following, and they flatter themselves that they’re better drivers than they actually are.

Abandoned prototype of a self-driving car.
Source: The Oatmeal

Counterbalancing these problems are the undeniable benefits of vehicles capable of driving themselves. They’ve already proven to be much safer than human drivers: Google’s testing fleet boasts more than a million miles on the road with only about a dozen accidents, all of which – so Google claims – were the fault of other motorists. If these cars end up communicating and acting in concert with each other, then traffic patterns could be optimized to reduce bottlenecks and gridlock while promoting fuel efficiency and environmental protection.

Now What?

Self-driving vehicles are probably here to stay because their advantages outweigh their drawbacks. This doesn’t mean that they’re right around the corner though. Certain changes in society and human mindset need to take place before these transportation products achieve widespread adoption. It’s likely that driverless cars will see specialized usage in limited fields for many years before people trust them enough to put human safety and comfort completely in their hands.