Will Autonomous Cars Ever Be Part of Everyday Life?

It’s no secret that automakers are working on autonomous cars. More and more are increasing their budgets for the technology, showing that they firmly believe that the future will consist of self-driving vehicles. They display their innovations at events such as the Consumer Electronics Show and the Detroit auto show. But how soon will autonomous cars be an everyday thing, or will they ever be?

One of the biggest promises with autonomous driving technology is a reduced number of accidents. Human error will be virtually eliminated, meaning fewer instances of distracted driving and DUIs.

Uber Volvo XC90
Uber Volvo XC90. Photo courtesy of Uber.

However, with how the technology is implemented today, drivers still have to pay attention and be able to intervene when necessary. Tesla’s Autopilot system requires drivers to remain alert when the system is active, but there have been a few accidents that occurred because drivers weren’t attentive enough. There has even been one incident in which police approached a stopped Tesla in San Francisco and discovered the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel. He claimed that Autopilot was turned on at the time and was arrested on suspicion of a DUI.

Those with vehicles that have autonomous driving capabilities tend to get a false sense of security and over trust the features. They believe that nothing bad will happen when the systems are activated and then become more distracted with their cellphones, infotainment screens, or something else.

Most of the vehicle systems today with autonomous driving features—including those from BMW, Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, and Tesla—are categorized as level two automation: partial automation. The cars can accelerate, steer, and brake under certain conditions, but the driver still needs to conduct lane changes, stops at traffic signals, etc. (Level zero is a normal vehicle with no automation; level five is considered full automation.)

Thus, drivers shouldn’t solely rely on the systems to get them from point A to point B without having to intervene. For example, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted a test and found a glitch in which Tesla’s Autopilot would cause the vehicle to veer into the guardrail when cresting hills. Without any driver alertness and intervention, a crash would have occurred. The transition from level two to three will be critical, as monitoring the driving environment then becomes the car’s responsibility.

And what happens when the autonomous car approaches something in the middle of the road? Will it obey the rules of the road and avoid crossing the double yellow line to veer around the object? Or will it just stop until you get out and move the object yourself? Will human drivers rear-end the autonomous car because it stopped? Will the vehicle stop for a dead squirrel on the edge of the roadway? Autonomous vehicles, at least right now, cannot judge situations like people can.

Or, what happens when there’s an emergency that would require driving above the speed limit? Will the car break the law to get you to the emergency room faster, or will it stick to that 55-mph speed limit? What happens when the car approaches a four-way stop sign intersection? Will it know which car goes next? And to further complicate things, will it be able to predict what the pedestrians standing at the street corner waiting to cross safely will do?

And will we even care if we’re riding in a Chrysler, Mercedes, or Honda? Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of General Motors, said, “In the long term, automotive brands are gone.”

Currently, a handful of cities have autonomous vehicles roaming the streets. In Boston, a startup company called NuTonomy has cars picking up Lyft customers, though human drivers are still sitting behind the steering wheel ready to take control in case something goes wrong. Uber also has some self-driving cars—Ford Fusions and Volvo XC90s in Pittsburgh.

In the Phoenix area, Waymo, the autonomous car division of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has minivans driving around without any humans behind the wheel (a Waymo employee does ride in the backseat, however). The Chrysler Pacifica minivans have level four autonomy, in which no human driver is required and the vehicle can drive itself in most environments and road conditions. In fact, on January 30th, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles stated that it would supply thousands more Pacificas to Waymo, beginning at the end of this year.

Waymo Chrysler Pacifica
Waymo Chrysler Pacifica. Photo courtesy of FCA.

At CES last month, Mercedes-Benz displayed its Smart Vision EQ, which has no pedals or steering wheel. The prototype was basically just a large radio-controlled car with a 12-mph top speed, with social media posts displayed on the dashboard. Mercedes mentioned at the Las Vegas show that anything like the Vision EQ wouldn’t enter production until 2030.

Meanwhile, Toyota debuted the e-Palette, an electric and autonomous pod vehicle that could be used as a taxi or as a delivery vehicle for companies like Pizza Hut and Amazon. At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Nissan debuted its Xmotion SUV, with seven screens inside that can be controlled via hand gestures and eye movements, fingerprint authentication for startup, and an autonomous drive mode.

Of course, many of the fully autonomous vehicles will most likely be geofenced to certain areas as they come out, like Waymo’s minivans. Those areas will possibly include college campuses, city centers, and even retirement communities.

Senate lawmakers have proposed mandatory education programs for autonomous car owners so that they understand the features of their vehicles, though some experts believe that the programs would be impossible because of the many variations of self-driving technology. However, knowing what each of these features does and what to expect from them is crucial, especially to the future success of the technology as it evolves. Individuals need to know how to interact with the vehicles.

There are many more questions to answer before autonomous cars become an everyday thing. It could even take decades for everything to be sorted out. But who knows, we’ll probably be thankful for them—fewer accidents, fewer traffic jams, and possibly less road rage.

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