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Siri, Take The Wheel: The Self-Driving Car Is Almost Here!

June 29th, 2015 by

The commercially available autonomous car may hit the road as soon as next year, but we’re not quite ready to give up complete control quite yet.

The self-driving car is a sci-fi film staple: it’s a symbol of an ultimate technological advancement. So it’s pretty exciting – the future is almost here! The autonomous car will creep onto our roads in only a few years, if industry reports are to be trusted. Take Tesla boss Elon Musk, who claims next year’s Tesla cars will be able to run on autopilot 90% of the time. “[This will be possible] with a combination of various sensors. You combine cameras with image recognition with radar and long-range ultrasonics, that’ll do it. Other car companies will follow,” Musk told ‘CNNMoney’.

Tesla seems to think we will have autonomous cars on the road sooner than most other car manufacturers have promised we would, with most setting 2020 as the likely year for robots to take the wheel part-time. When it comes to a fully autonomous car, Tesla is with the consensus: that’s likely to come in 2020. That’s the year it may well be possible to truly get the future experience: get in the car, take a nap in the backseat and wake up fresh at the destination.

The wider effect of the autonomous car will reach far beyond the automotive industry itself. Take taxi services: a fleet of just 9,000 autonomous cars could service the taxi needs of the whole of New York City, according to a study from Columbia University. These cars, hailed via app, would lead to shorter waiting times, higher utility rates for the cars, less traffic and cheaper rides.

The downside of this tech-operated flock of robot taxis would of course be the effect on the 13,000 people-run New York taxis currently in existence. Job losses is often cited as an effect of autonomous cars, as the business sector is likely to be the first to embrace it. Automated heavy good vehicles could drive on the motorway in train formation, with only small gaps between each car for improved aerodynamics, resulting in fuel economy gains of 20-30%, business consultant Lukas Neckermann told ‘The Guardian’: “You will also potentially have a reduction in staff costs because you can run your fleet with fewer people.”.

Self-driving cars should be a boon for the environment also because they’re more likely to be electric. If we reduced the number of petrol-fuelled cars by 90%, our overall CO2 emissions would go down by an estimated 15.9%. Autonomous vehicles should be safer too: 93% of car accidents are attributed to human error, and a study by the Casualty Actuarial Society last year found that autonomous vehicles would reduce accidents by 78%. This could lead not only to fewer fatalities on the road, but a significant reduction in injuries and hospital stays.

There’s a downside to there being fewer accidents too if you want to call it that, in that car insurers would lose their bread and butter. However, speeding tickets may become a thing of the past too, meaning traffic police could spend their time on other things. It’s possible that car rental companies would actually thrive in the driverless future, as they’d have more customers as you probably wouldn’t need a driving licence to rent a car, nor would you have to pay so much for insurance.

But before we get to the point where cars can be fully trusted to take to the roads unassisted, we’re facing a transition phase. This may mean having to teach autonomous cars how to think like a human driver, argues Sandor Veres, professor of autonomous control systems at the University of Sheffield. “Although driverless cars can already use sensors to exercise caution, judgment and prediction of other drivers is just as important as fine control of the vehicle,” Vere writes  in ‘The Guardian’. This is because we make judgments about other drivers based on experience: an erratic driver may be lost and more likely to make a sudden move; a slow car may have an elderly driver; a risky overtaking may mean the driver is reckless. Concludes Veres: “What is needed is a learning system for driverless cars which will enable them to learn how to judge other drivers as we do.”.

Are you excited for the future of self-driving cars? Let us know @UK2.

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