As more and more aspects of our lives become automated or see the introduction of smart devices, we are becoming increasingly used to intelligent machines. One of the areas that still provokes controversy and debate, however, is the introduction of self-driving cars.
Tesla’s electric cars already have a limited self-driving capability in the form of Autopilot, which can drive the car on motorways and dual carriageways. We are also now starting to see aspects of self-driving appear on everyday cars you can buy in showrooms today.
Safety equipment such as automatic emergency braking, lane departure warnings and adaptive cruise control, which maintains its distance from the vehicle in front, are already widely available and use similar technology to that needed for fully-autonomous vehicles. Crucially, these devices get drivers used to the idea of the car having some element of self-control.
In time, we will probably see our smart homes and cars begin to talk to each other. Home automation companies such as http://digitalinteriors.co.uk will be able to offer integrated systems that may get your car out of the garage and warm up the interior before you go to work, or you will be able to call a self-driving taxi from your personal digital assistant.
The big challenge for self-driving cars, of course, is being able to operate in a real-world environment and work alongside human-driven vehicles, coping with pedestrians, changes in weather conditions, complex road layouts and more.
Waymo is the first to put this ability to the test with vehicles on public roads that do not have a driver poised to take over. Waymo’s cars do have an operator on board, but they are in the back seat and only have an emergency stop button. Tests are restricted to the Phoenix, Arizona area and there are plans to offer a ride-sharing service to members of the public in the longer term, allowing people to use Waymo’s cars like taxis.
There is no doubt that self-driving technology is improving. According to a report that Waymo produced for the California Department of Motor Vehicles, its vehicles needed human intervention once every 1,250 miles in 2015; however, this figure was just once every 5,000 miles in 2016. Whether the cars are yet ready to go mainstream is another question.