When the future finally “arrives”, it’s never quite like we imagined it. Since long before The Jetsons aired, humanity has been dreaming of next-generation transportation that will allow us to escape the everyday drudgery of the humble automobile. But every day millions, if not billions, of us still sit in traffic on the way to work, grumbling that we should have had flying cars by now. Don’t despair though - setting aside the lofty dream of transitioning from wheels to wings at the push of a button, the fact is that futuristic transport solutions are being tested in the real world right now.
One of the solutions with the highest profile (and probably best chance of success) is the driverless car. Google has been hard at work for a while now, developing the Google car - a small and unassuming model that not only knows how to drive, but also can respond to quick moving events like unexpected obstructions, keeping the passengers safe from harm while they glide along responsibility-free. But it’s not all clear sailing for these self-driving cars. To date, only four states in the US allow driverless cars on the road, and the models that are out and about still have difficulty prioritising hazards - for example, they may swerve sharply to avoid a small piece of debris that wouldn’t cause any harm. Google is projecting that they’ll have these issues, and a raft of other small bugs and niggles, sorted out by 2020.
So it’s looking like we may see self-driving cars on our roads in the very near future. There’s no denying that the whole idea is a very cool concept and it certainly appeals to the lazy side of our personalities, but are there any significant upsides that will boost these clever cars from fun novelty to the next must-have vehicle? Well for one, driverless cars may help with traffic issues. Sure, they’re not going to do anything to decrease the amount of vehicles on the road, but if the right steps are taken then they could be the key to a much smoother morning commute. It all comes down to efficiency. That’s what causes most of the snarl ups on busy roads; individual human drivers don’t have a chance of knowing the best decision to make to keep traffic flowing citywide - we just don’t have the information available to us. But a self-driving car that is able to access the internet and determine exactly what is required for optimal traffic flow… if the majority of cars on the road are like this, it wouldn’t be long before traffic jams became a thing of the past. Another obvious upside is the reduction in drink-driving incidents that’s likely to follow the mainstream adoption of autonomous vehicles.
Some car manufacturers are delving even deeper into what it could mean to live in a world of driverless cars. The Mercedes F 015 concept car looks like something straight out of a sci-fi blockbuster and takes advantage of the vehicle’s autonomous nature by allowing the front seats to transition from forward to rear facing, instantly creating a lounge-like atmosphere that lends itself to conference meetings on the go or friendly catch-up sessions whilst taking a long trip.
Naturally there are a lot of safety concerns from the man-on-the-street. After all, how many people are comfortable enough to put their lives in the power of what is essentially a speeding robot? Google is quick to point out though that of the 12 minor traffic accidents that have occurred since they started road testing their prototypes in 2012, not one came down to a fault on the part of the Google car. On one occasion a Google employee was in control of the model at the time of the incident - every other time the fault has ended up firmly on other human drivers who made mistakes and crashed into the Google car. Not a bad track record, if the tech giant is to be believed. Whether other manufacturers can live up to this standard remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a promising sign.
How soon will it be then before your car rental
comes without a steering wheel? At the moment we can only speculate, but it seems likely that this is a trend that (once proven to be safe and reliable) will be welcomed with open arms by rental companies. It could well reduce both risk and hassle for them, which in turn is likely to result in lower prices for you. But at the end of the day, one question remains: would you be comfortable taking a metaphorical back seat in your own car? Let us know in the comments!