With headlines like “Self-Driving Cars May Rule the Road in 25 Years” (NBC) popping up on your news feed, you might be getting your hopes up about having a spiffy driverless ride.
Check the headlines another day, though, and you’ll see that the news about self-driving vehicles is equal parts excitement and critique. As journalists attempt to answer our burning questions (How close are we to self-driving cars becoming mainstream? What’s stopping us?), more concerns about the viability of driverless vehicles emerge.
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In case you haven’t been keeping up with the conversation, here’s an update on the current state and struggles of self-driving cars.
Are We There Yet?
Depending on the article that you read, a world of driverless cars is either a far-fetched vision or an imminent reality.
Despite conflicting attitudes, concrete advancements in automated vehicles have brought us unarguably closer to the latter. Google’s self-driving car has enjoyed its fair share of media coverage after a prototype was released in May, but plenty of other innovators are exploring driverless technologies, including Mercedes, Intel, and Volvo.
The exploration is for good reason: a stake in self-driving technology is likely to produce profits. A January study by IHS Automotive predicts that the number of self-driving vehicles will skyrocket once models, even those that require some driver input, are commercially available. The study estimates that there will be 54 million self-driving cars on the road by 2035.
Furthermore, the public is increasing receptive to being ousted from the driver’s seat. In a study by the University of Michigan, “Public Sentiments Towards Driverless Cars,” over half of Americans surveyed had a positive outlook on driverless vehicles.
So What’s the Hold Up?
Even with a supportive following, self-driving vehicles have a host of roadblocks to overcome before they take to the highways. It’s not only the technology that must advance: lawmakers and insurers also need to be on board.
Critics are quick to point out the shortcomings of current self-driving technologies. In late August, MIT’s Technology Review cast doubt on the map-dependent system and other facets of Google’s driverless car. The article speculated that changes to intersections and maps, like new traffic lights and traffic signs, could compromise the success and safety of self-driving cars.
MIT and other news outlets have pointed out the fact that Google’s self-driving vehicles have only been tested on a few thousand miles of road—and that it would take an enormous amount of work to upkeep maps and data that allow self-driving cars to operate across the US and around the world.
Furthermore, Google might have gone too far with their vehicle’s automation by eliminating a steering wheel, accelerator, and brakes. Going into effect in mid-September, a California law specifies that the car’s test driver must be “capable of taking over immediate physical control” of the vehicle, which isn’t possible with Google’s last prototype.
The technology of driverless cars might have to backtrack in order to comply with legislation.
Laying Down the Law
Lawmakers have yet to establish the ethics of driverless vehicles, much less to enact these ethics into law.
Doug Newcomb’s recent PCMag article raises a few questions that lawmakers will eventually have to answer. “Will it be okay for a drunken person to use a self-driving car to get home from a party?,” Newcomb writes, “Can parents send their kids to school each day in an autonomous vehicle like they do with a human-driven bus? And, of course, who will be at-fault when a self-driving car crashes?”
While the legality of self-driving cars continues to develop, some states, including Washington DC, Nevada, Florida, California, and Michigan, have already permitted self-driving cars to be tested on public roads.
Driverless Cars and Insurance
Like lawmakers, auto insurers will have to establish new ground rules for fully and partially self-driving vehicles. Insurance companies must answer the complex question of liability when the “driver” is a machine. If California’s legislation serves as an example, it’s likely that human car owners will still be held accountable for the errors of their self-operating vehicles.
There are plenty of issues to iron out before self-driving cars become mainstream, but progress is certain with so many players already invested in the technology. Google and other producers of self-driving vehicles will still need nods of approval from lawmakers, insurers, and interested consumers. Luckily, the promise of increased safety, luxury, and futuristic travel is good reason for all parties to take the possibility of driverless cars seriously, even if it takes more than two decades.
Photo credit (top image): Google