A simples guide

A guide to driverless cars

Driverless cars could be coming to a town near you in the not too distant future – sadly we’re not quite at KITT levels (if you’re too young to remember Knight Rider, ask your parents) especially if you’re judging them on style. Current embodiments such as Google’s Noddy inspired car to Heathrow’s driverless pods modelled on milk floats show there’s still a way to go in the style stakes. But tech wise, self-driving cars are very much science fact, not fiction.

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What exactly is a driverless car?

It depends on how futuristic you want to go. Driverless cars certainly imply ‘no driver’ but there are two levels of driverless driving:

  • High automation – this is where us humans are still needed to manually control the car in certain road, traffic or weather situations.
  • Full automation – this is where people as drivers are redundant and the car does all the driving itself (scary – even the Starship Enterprise had a crew).

If you think about it, lots of cars on the road already have a decent amount of automation – like emergency brake systems, auto-parking, cruise control, even down to the sensors on your windscreen that detect rain. But true driverless cars will do everything, all of the time and not just in short bursts to carry out certain activities.

How do they work?

It’s not quite witchcraft, magic or the power of thought, it’s the real life application of artificial intelligence – where the car’s computer ‘brain’ learns through pattern recognition. The computer’s fed enough images and data to classify what things are in order to make driving decisions based on what it’s seen. Which is pretty much what your own brain does every time you look at something and then decide what to do about it.

It’s a pretty complex process and relies on the computer learning through ‘experience’ rather than it being programmed how to drive or react based on a set program (or algorithm for any tech buffs out there). This is because driving is very much learned through experience (which is one of the reasons why young drivers suffer such high insurance costs – inexperience is often at the root of accidents).

self driving car

Can I buy one?

Not right now, as they’re still being tested around the world with the likes of Ford, Google and BWM all throwing their hat into the driverless car ring, but soon-ish...

Truly driverless cars are expected to be on the public roads in the 2020s. Before they can be made available to the general public to buy and be part of regular road traffic, a whole load of legal standpoints will have to be discussed and outlined such as car insurance – can you simply ‘blame it on the car’ if it has an accident and who will ultimately face the consequences if robocar decides to go rogue?

But that’s not to say you can’t experience what it’s like to be in and be driven by a self-driving car. Heathrow’s terminal five already has its own mini fleet of driverless pods that can ferry you from the building to the car park with silent efficiency. If a pod isn’t ready and waiting for you as you step out of the building, you can summon one and once you’re in, you choose your destination on a touchscreen and away you go. But don’t worry, there’s a central control room with a human being in it if the whole experience is just too surreal and out of this world for you to cope with.

The government has also announced that trials of driverless cars will take place on British motorways in 2017. It’s all part of the plan to see that Britain leads the way in transport innovation and the government’s not taking any chances – £20 million has been allocated to various self-driving car projects out of a £100 million fund dedicated to transport technology.

Are driverless cars safe?

Human error causes 94% of all car accidents so taking away the faulty manmade element can only make driving safer. Self-driving cars ‘see’ through a series of sensors that continually monitor the environment around them – and unlike people, those sensors never get tired; which is key when it comes to removing the risk from driving. The most common reasons for car accidents include failing to look properly, misjudgement, distraction, carelessness and being in a hurry – all very human ‘qualities’.

Road safety’s one thing, but there could be concerns about cyber security. What happens if hackers override safety protocols for example? It’s a question BMW found themselves having to answer when hackers did exactly that and managed to unlock car doors using nothing more than a smartphone.
Since then key lessons have been learnt not just by BMW but by all car manufacturers, so any form of technology and software developed for self-driving cars is likely to have rigorous security features not dissimilar to online banking.

Advantages of driverless cars

The clearest advantage is safety and by removing the cause of more than 90% of accidents (humans), driverless cars can’t help but be safer. But it’s not just lives that could be saved – if cars truly were self-driving, we could claw back six working weeks – the average driver spends a whopping 235 hours a year just driving. Think of what you could do whilst your car drove itself – read a book, watch a film or prepare for that meeting you’re rushing to.

Driverless cars would also be designed to communicate with each other, sensing where they are in relation to other cars and using this information to plot the best and most efficient route to destinations based on traffic. In turn this would reduce congestion and emissions produced by idling engines in traffic jams.

Self-driving cars also open a wealth of opportunity to those that currently struggle with independent mobility – the elderly, those with disabilities that prevent them from driving. Thirty one percent of women do not have a full driving licence, neither do nearly half (46%) of 17-30 year olds, being mobile brings greater opportunity for social inclusion providing happier and less isolated lives.

What about now?

Well, for now you’re just going to have to make do with your old fashioned, drive-it-yourself car – which of course means sorting out your own car insurance (you can’t blame the car just yet). It may be boring by comparison but it’ll give the industry and the government to iron out all the kinks and legislation that’ll be needed and hopefully ensure we avoid self-driving cars from going all Skynet on us.

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