Futuristic novels and sci-fi films have already perfected the image of a driverless car zipping through a traffic-free tunnel or hurtling down a motorway, leaving the driver to sit back with a drink and a book until the vehicle reaches its destination.
While this might seem like a pipe dream only viable in the far-flung reaches of the year 2243, the reality is that driverless are already being tested on private land. In fact, the UK government admits that driverless cars will be tested on public roads by the end of 2013.
As a result, it is not a question of ‘will?’ but ‘when?’. And that future might be sooner than you think.
Driverless cars on trial
In a bid to reduce congestion on British roads, the Department for Transport has unveiled plans as part of a £28 billion investment to develop driverless vehicles. These cars are supposed to be capable of driving on their own “using knowledge of the environment in which they are driving”, helping to maintain a set speed without deviating from a lane – all without a driver’s input.
These cars will be guided by a system of sensors and cameras, making these cars have the potential to be ‘safer and more efficient’ than regular vehicles.
But it is not just the UK that is publicly trialling driverless cars. The US states of Nevada, Florida and California have all passed legislation around autonomous cars and we could be seeing the average car owner operating a commercially available driverless car as soon as 2017, according to Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin.
Furthermore, driverless vehicles could also offer societal benefits, such as reduced traffic fatalities and independence for people with disabilities who currently wouldn’t be able to operate a standard vehicle.
Despite the technology to deliver a driverless vehicle more or less in place, there are still a number of regulatory hurdles that would have to be jumped before the commercial sale of such a vehicle. For instance, each state in the US would have to adopt a universal regulatory approach to these vehicles as manufacturers would not tailor 50 sets of driverless vehicles to adhere to 50 different state regulations.
Furthermore, the UK would also have to change regulations at governmental level to encourage the sale of driverless vehicles. Parking and zoning on a local level would also have to be considered.
Some industry experts have expressed concern at the thought of driverless cars in the near future, with the AA’s head of roads policy Paul Watters claiming AA members “have expressed concern about fully autonomous cars”. However, he does concede that fully driverless cars will be the “culmination of a gradual evolution, not an overnight revolution”.
Overall, the future looks to be pointing towards the development and commercial sale of autonomous cars much sooner than sci-fi novels predicted. To answer the question, “Will the future have driverless cars?”, that is a comprehensive “yes”. The answer to “When?”, however, is a little more tricky. But driverless technology currently being developed by tech pioneers like Google and leading car makers like Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Volvo suggests driverless technology could be standard within the next ten to fifteen years.