The only thing automakers seem to mention these days is autonomous cars. According to them, it won’t be long before you’ll just sit back and enjoy the ride.
But don’t get your garage ready for one just yet. It’s true some of the technologies are already here or close to rolling out. And some companies are testing self-driving cars – and even tractor-trailers – on the roads right now. But it’s still going to be a long time before we can ditch the steering wheel for good.
One of the primary issues, at least right now, is that the available systems are mostly reactive, not proactive.
You can currently buy models that “drive themselves,” including the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and Acura MDX, among others. They use adaptive cruise control to maintain a pre-set distance from vehicles in front; and cameras that read the lane markings so the electric power steering can stay between them.
But they’re only reacting to what’s directly around them. They can’t identify and stop for traffic lights. They can manage curves, but they can’t turn a corner. And if lane markings aren’t clear—if they’re worn or covered with snow—they can’t steer themselves.
They can also get confused: I’ve had them follow the lines to an off-ramp when the highway lane had an exit option I didn’t want to take.
And while some tests are being done in northern climates, most evaluations are in fair-weather areas. Ice and salt can coat radar sensors and render the adaptive cruise control inoperative, as I’ve had happen several times. Laser-based systems may solve much of this, but they’re still very expensive.
Think about everything you do (or should do!) when you’re driving. You look at signs and traffic signals. You stop and then turn corners. When other drivers don’t obey the right-of-way, you adjust your driving to compensate.
These are all things fully autonomous cars will have to do. They’ll even have to know their own state of repair, since an algorithm that’s set to brake at a specific point may be off if the tires are worn, and they’ll have to know what the roads are like, in case they hit an unexpected patch of ice.
To operate as truly autonomous vehicles, cars need comprehensive road infrastructure, and that’s going to be both long-term and very expensive. These will include interactive traffic lights and parking structures, information beacons, and traffic data broadcasts. If your municipality can’t even keep potholes under control, how do you think it’ll plan and pay for all of that?
What about the phase-in? The average Canadian vehicle is just over eleven years old. Expect to see more than a decade of self-driving cars trying to work alongside their drive-it-yourself relatives before they become the vast majority.
And all of that is just about the cars themselves. If you want a career with a future, become a lawyer, because someone’s going to have to figure out all the regulations and precedents.
Will you still need driver training and a license? Will children be able to ride alone in them? Can you be drunk when “behind the wheel” in one? And if the whole idea is removing driver error, will you even need insurance?
Expect autonomous vehicles to stick to the speed limits, while conventional drivers zip around them. When self-drivers are the majority, will jurisdictions raise speed limits? Or will they lower them in deference to pedestrians, knowing the cars will obey? And while none of us like speeding tickets, what will replace them in police budgets?
When autonomous cars crash – because it’s foolish to think that nothing will ever go wrong – who’s to blame? The automaker? The software provider? The city’s infrastructure? The driver? Or will lawyers take everyone to court and see what sticks?
All of that may sound like futuristic scare tactics, but these all have to be figured out on a nationwide scale before autonomous cars are fully deployed. Looking forward to getting one? You might be in for a bit of a wait before you do.