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Will Cars Ever Really Be Able To Drive Themselves?

There's Been A Lot Of Hype About So Called 'Driverless Cars' In The News. But Is This Realistic? When Would We Actually See Driver-less Cars On The Road?

Aug 29, 2014

Over the last few years, Google have been developing the ‘self-driving car’. This April, the company announced that their autonomous vehicles have now driven over one million kilometres and, the newest model has no steering wheel, accelerator pedal or brakes.

But, is the driverless car totally safe? What benefits do they bring? And how close are they to becoming a reality on our roads? Keep reading to find out.

Driverless cars could offer many benefits

In a recent survey, almost two thirds of Americans said that they believe that self-driving cars would bring benefits. Many believe that autonomous vehicles are likely to lead to fewer road accidents and improved emergency response to crashes. Other suggested benefits include better fuel economy and lower emissions.

A study released in October 2013 by the independent think tank Eno Center for Transportation estimated that if 90 percent of vehicles in the USA were autonomous, each year 4.2 million accidents could be avoided, 21,700 lives would be saved and fuel consumption would be reduced by 724 million gallons.

Clearly, self-driving cars have plenty of benefits. Next, we look at how manufacturers are developing this technology.

Ford developing a driverless car

At the Frankfurt Auto Show in September 2013, the chairman of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz, created a stir when he emerged from the backseat of a Mercedes S500 that had been driven onstage without anyone behind the wheel.

Dieter Zetsche revealed that the same Mercedes had successfully conducted a test in which it was driven for 62 miles on German roads completely autonomously using technology that differed only slightly from the standard equipment on the manufacturer’s S500 production model.

And, it’s not just Mercedes that are developing this technology. Manufacturers including BMW, Audi, Lexus, Ford and Nissan are deep in development of driverless technology.

Randy Visintainer, director of research and innovations at Ford, believes that cars capable of driving themselves will become the norm one day. He said: "We have to start thinking about this right now because if we don't, we are heading for global gridlock.

“The challenge is to make the technology affordable. We don't to make these systems available only on high end models; they need to go right through our product range."

Ford already has project vehicles on the road to develop self-driving cars. The aim of these cars is to establish how systems such as lane keeping, cross traffic alert, active park assists, blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control and collision warning can work together to keep traffic moving safely.

And, as well as cameras and sensors, laser technology is also helping the development of autonomous vehicles. Greg Stevens, manager of Ford's global driver assistance and active safety programme, said: "This technology can create a 3D map of the car and its environment in real time. This way the vehicle will know what's around it all the time and alert the driver to any hazards.

"Wi-fi is another technology we are investigating which will allow cars to talk to each other. Current technologies need line of sight while wi-fi will allow cars to 'see' each other even at blind intersections."

Clearly, the driverless car is close to becoming reality. But how close?

Driverless car may be some years away

The Hollywood Reporter recently reported that some carmakers predict self-driving cars might be common sights on the road by 2017.

However, many experts do not believe that autonomous cars are imminent. Sven Beiker, executive director of Stanford University's Center for Automotive Research, said: "Lots of automation is happening but by no means can I imagine a scenario where by 2020 we can just sit back and relax while driving."

One of the reasons for this is that many of the motoring laws would need to be changed to reflect the introduction of driverless cars. For example, just four of America’s 50 states - Nevada, Florida, California, and Michigan – permit autonomous vehicles.

And, the public are also nervous about these vehicles. A recent study across the USA by Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute found that there were plenty of concerns about self-driving cars.

Americans were worried about almost every aspect of a self-driving car including legal liability, data privacy, interactions with non-self-driving vehicles, system performance in poor weather, and the self-driving cars, in general, being worse than humans. 

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