A closer look at some of the hurdles the self-driving revolution is up against
If you walked around the show floor of CES this year, you might have thought you were actually attending the “Car Electronics Show” as almost each event and booth had some sort of car related showcase. From full-on autonomous vehicles to super fast electric engines, the automotive industry really pushed the envelope with their concept cars and demos to give us a glimpse of what the future of driving might have in store for us.
But how much of what we saw is hype and how much is reality?
Self-Driving Cars — HYPE
Trump’s new Transportation Secretary recently admitted that the U.S has no clue how self-driving cars will work , but that hasn’t stopped almost every car manufacturer at CES to announce and in some cases even demo their autonomous car projects that most have claimed will hit the roads by 2021.
But 2021 is only 4 years from now, and many things need to happen before we can expect self-driving cars to become a reality. For one, automakers need to achieve true level 4 or 5 autonomy, which, defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation, means that no human interaction whatsoever is required for the vehicle to be able to operate on all roadways (level 4) and in the case of level 5, in any environmental conditions. In reality, most car manufacturers are still trying to figure out how to achieve level 2 and 3, which means partial automation that requires the driver to be ready to take control of the vehicle at any time.
While tech companies like Google, Tesla and Uber are developing level 4 automation technology, they still have lots of work and testing to do before their systems can be considered safe. We saw in Uber’s red light running mishap and in Tesla’s autopilot fatal crash that despite having a driver behind the wheel in case of trouble, the human brain simply doesn’t have enough time process the danger and take action to prevent accidents or dangerous behaviour when not already in control of the vehicle. This makes these technologies very dangerous especially if the drivers’ expectations are full automation.
Unpredictable road conditions are another reason why autonomous vehicles won’t be ready for for 2021. Snow and storms for instance, pose a significant challenge to self-driving vehicles which rely on sensor data in order to operate. Snow and dirt make it impossible for some back-up cameras to even operate during the winter months, so when stop signs are covered in snow and no lanes are even visible, this presents a huge issue for a car packed with sensors and cameras.
Finally, if private companies are able to get over technological and environmental hurdles and actually bring to market a fully autonomous vehicle, it is very unlikely that governments will be ready. We’ve reached a point where our technological advancements are outpacing our lawmakers’ ability to establish legislations and regulations. As we’ve seen in California, a proposed law requiring manufacturers to include pedals and steering wheels in driverless cars is the perfect example of premature regulations that will prevent car makers and tech companies from developing the safest technologies.
Autonomous features — REALITY
Now, self-driving cars may not be right around the corner, but cars with autonomous features are definitely real and something to get excited about as they can make our daily commute much more pleasant and even safer.
Nearly all manufacturers now offer, in most higher-end models, autonomous features such as self-park steering, adaptive cruise control and lane-centering steering. Though none of them have been able to truly achieve level 4 or 5 automation, they seem to all be working towards that goal.
It’s still too early to say exactly when self-driving cars will be a reality, but one thing is for sure, mass adoption of this technology won’t be happening in the next four years. In the meantime, we still have plenty to get excited about as we’ve entered this new automotive revolution. The advancements in artificial intelligence, in electric-powered engines, in connection technology and, of course, in autonomous features is going to completely alter how we’ve been using and owning vehicles from now moving forward.