Thoughts, Insights and Inspiration

Driverless Cars: Distant Dream or Foreseeable Future?

Across the years, driverless cars have been depicted in many a Hollywood film: from Arnold Schwarzenegger taking an automated cab in Total Recall to Will Smith’s slick driverless Audi TT in iRobot. At the time, it never seemed technologically feasible and was always just part of the film put in for effect. Little did we know just how much the technology was advancing and the dream was accelerating towards us.

Experiments into automated cars have been conducted since the 1920s but the technology just wasn’t available for them to actually gain traction. Fast forward to 2017 and now the likes of Ford, Nissan and Toyota are predicting driverless cars will hit our roads within the next couple of years.

“If you look at the most recent predictions, the majority of car manufacturers estimate the first highly-to-fully automated vehicles [AVs] will hit the market between 2020-2025,” Luca Mentuccia, automotive global MD at Accenture said.

Challenges and Successes

Trials have not been without their share of controversy though. A number of companies have been involved in accidents, in some cases causing human fatalities. Uber and Tesla, in particular, have been caught up in these tragic events, and while Tesla CEO Elon Musk remains bullish about the technology’s prospects, it is still a concern. Can this technology really be trusted to be safe and secure?

With such problems at the forefront of consumers’ minds, it’s easy to wonder how driverless cars can ever be part of the future of the automotive industry, never mind less than two years away, as Musk suggests. However, big names have big power. While Uber and Tesla may have seen their products at the centre of the aforementioned crashes, their involvement in the technology – along with that of Google – has set off a chain reaction that has seen the concept of driverless cars gather momentum and make significant progress.

More than that, various successful trials have taken place across the USA for some time now. Google’s Waymo has been roaming the roads of Texas, unknown to most for quite some time, and the company has announced that its fleet has clocked up more than 3 million miles on public roads over the past eight years! Considering few people knew about it, this is quite a feat that suggests Musk may be right and that driverless cars may have a bright future after all.

Look at the graph above, which depicts the number of self-driving cars on public roads and shows a sharp spike that begins in June 2015. This could be summed up as the moment driverless cars matured from distant dream to potential reality. The cars are being described as “getting safer with every mile driven” and data released by the California Department of Motor Vehicles in February showed a big drop in the number of times Waymo’s human engineers had to take control of the vehicles. So there’s definitely improvement.

What’s driving the driverless push?

“The goal is to wean us off of having drivers in the car, so we don’t want the public talking to our safety drivers.” Raffi Krikorian, Uber’s engineering director

Part of the desire for driverless cars is revenue. Take Uber for example. The taxi company could potentially drastically increase its profits if it doesn’t  have to pay its drivers. Removing expensive, unreliable and sometimes unsafe ‘human resources’ from the company’s overheads will undoubtedly transform the whole taxi industry. However, even here there are problems. With Tesla founder Elon Musk estimating that 12% – 15% of the world’s workforce is involved in driving to some capacity, the social impacts could be devastating.

Of course, Uber’s former CEO Travis Kalanick offered the opposing viewpoint on the matter. He argued that Uber’s need for drivers would increase dramatically as there will be a surge in the need for ‘safety drivers’ to watch over the autonomous fleet and ensure everything is working without a hitch. “I don’t think the number of human drivers will go down anytime soon,” he said. “In fact, I think in an autonomous world, it goes up. In absolute figures. Of course, in percentage it’s down.”

Are we there yet?

Admittedly, there is still a very long road ahead before driverless cars become a reality. However, progress is happening with genuine conviction, so the driverless car concept is no longer just a gimmick in our favourite sci-fi films: it’s a very real possibility.

Do you think driverless cars will be hitting our roads any time in the near future? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter @mporiumgroup

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