But what exactly are self-driving cars, how do they work and what will be their impact on our daily lives? And just how close are they to becoming an everyday reality?
The idea of self-driving cars has been around for a very long time. They have populated sci-fi visions of the future since the 1930s. But it is only recently that the technology that could make them a reality has begun to be fully developed.
The first experimental (and extremely slow-moving) prototypes date back as far as the 1960s.
More recently, in 2004, Darpa (a US defense department, responsible for the development of emerging technologies) invited the whole world to build a vehicle that could drive across California’s Mojave Desert to win million-dollar prize. The most successful vehicle only went seven of the 142 miles. But the race fueled a belief that the robot cars were a possibility.
In the follow-up race in 2005 five vehicles finished the course. By the 2007 Urban Challenge, the vehicles were not just avoiding obstacles and sticking to trails but following traffic laws, merging, parking, even making safe, legal U-turns.
And by 2010, Google technicians had built a system that could handle some of California’s toughest roads (including the famously winding block of San Francisco’s Lombard Street) with minimal human involvement.
Autonomous vehicles rely on radar and high-resolution cameras, plus a wealth of computing power, to detect and identify the objects on a street and ensure the car is instructed to avoid them. Some of the more basic technologies that these systems use are already in place on today’s vehicles: automatic braking systems, lane sensors and parking sensors, for example.
The most widely-discussed benefit would come from improved safety. Last year there were 1,770 reported road deaths in the UK alone, with over 26,000 people seriously injured. In the USA the figures are even more alarming, with 36,750 pedestrian and bicyclist deaths. With the majority of accidents being the result of human error, even a 90% adoption rate of driverless cars could translate into 22,000 lives being saved there every year.
Another advantage would be to open up transportation to people previously excluded: children, the disabled and the elderly could, in theory, travel without a driver, increasing accessibility.
AVs could significantly improve fuel efficiency thanks to algorithms for more efficient driving and the possibility of deploying lighter weight vehicles due to reduced collision risk. One projection estimates that a transition to electric, driverless taxis for example, could reduce emissions per mile by as much as 94% by 2030.
If rather than individual ownership, vehicles are owned by a municipality or business and deployed like taxis, this could reduce the number of cars needed in urban areas by 80%. There would be less need for parking places, freeing up that land for other uses, such as bike lanes, parks, or pedestrian areas. And fleet owners are also more likely than individual owners to transition to electric vehicles, given the long-term cost savings.
One of the potential negatives could be the impact on employment. Many people earn their living from driving: specifically, trucks and taxis. In the United States alone there are currently 234,000 taxi drivers and 3.5 million truck drivers. What would be the impact on employment if those jobs were to disappear? What would those people do instead?
There’s also the risk that the proliferation of AVs may lead to huge increases in miles driven due to lower costs of personal transportation, thus offsetting any environmental gains at the micro level.
Currently, the cost of developing this technology is also extremely expensive, but strides are being made all the time in reducing the costs of these new technologies.
It depends who you talk to. Some manufacturers believe their new self-driving system will enable them to start offering fully autonomous driving in 2020, but some experts remain sceptical.
Essentially, about 80% of the technology needed to put self-driving cars into routine use is in place. The hardware, to start, is mostly there. Radars are already cheap and robust enough to build into mass-market cars. Same goes for cameras, and the artificial intelligence that turns their 2D images into something a computer can understand is making impressive strides.
But the remaining 20%, including developing software that can reliably anticipate what other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists are going to do, will be much more difficult to perfect.
Although much uncertainty remains, autonomous vehicles have the potential to radically change how people move around, the shape of our cities, the amount of carbon pollution in the air, and the nature of work, among other things. Now is the time for policymakers, businesses, technologists, and citizens to start exploring the different possibilities in detail—and charting a path towards a better future.
Shell Fleet Solutions has analysed emerging concepts and trends to help professionals navigate these changes and plan for the future of their fleets.