As driverless cars have continued to dominate tech headlines in recent years, it has seemed as though the introduction of self-driving vehicles has been “coming soon” for most of the past decade. But, where are we really at with driverless technology and when, if ever, can we expect to see them on our roads?
What’s the hold-up?
There are some big names leading the race in driverless technology, including Tesla, Uber, Google’s Waymo and GM’s Cruise. Despite their big budgets and world-leading technology, the development of self-driving tech hasn’t been straightforward or without incident. In 2018, a woman was hit and killed by a driverless Uber test vehicle and, in the same year, Tesla’s autopilot was engaged during a crash in the US that resulted in the death of the driver.
Tragedies like these have continued to stall – not only testing and development of driverless cars – but also, the public trust in getting behind the wheel of these vehicles.
Big steps forward
Despite these setbacks, there have also been serious steps forward in recent years and even months. In 2019, Waymo ran an experiment in Phoenix, Arizona with around 400 participants who were ferried around the US state by these self-driving cars: a project that was hailed a success by the Google-owned company, telling its customers that “completely driverless Waymo cars are on the way”. You can read the article here.
It’s not just stateside that these developments seem to be gaining some pace. In December 2019, Waymo acquired the Oxford-based AI company, Latent Logic, who explained their desire to “accelerate progress towards safe and reliable self-driving vehicles”. The Department for Transport in the UK has even stated that “we need to ensure we take the public with us as we move towards having self-driving cars on our roads by 2021”.
More bumps in the road?
Although progress is beginning to speed up, there are still some major obstacles for self-driving cars to negotiate before we see them on our roads. Public trust in the technology has taken serious setbacks due to the tragedies in 2018 and there are still big issues to overcome in terms of affordability and integration on the UK’s roads. Experts have particularly warned against issues with detection for these cars in adverse weather conditions compared to the warm-weather climate of testing in Arizona, or their ability to react to illogical human behaviour.
So, if/when are they coming?
In short, it’s still difficult to know. The Department for Transport’s statement that they want to see driverless cars on the road by 2021 is a significant statement of intent. However, we saw a similar claim from Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin in 2012, who said that “You can count on one hand the number of years it will take before ordinary people” can experience driverless cars. You can read the article here.
As a result, more patience may be required when it comes to self-driving cars for all. Certainly, the successful experiments of companies such as Waymo are a huge step forward. But, as the tragedies of 2018 highlight, there is still work to be done in terms of convincing the world that driverless cars are safe – or, at least, safer than human drivers.
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