Every now and again some piece of news will pop up about driverless cars and how they seem to be just around the corner but in spite of this our morning commute still (sadly) requires us to be at least half awake. So why are we not in the world of the Jetsons already, zipping around with our eyes anywhere but on the road, or hopping into a driverless car rental without a care in the world? Well, the truth is that there are a number of issues surrounding this kind of revolutionary technology. It’s not all bad news though, with some very promising developments on the horizon for driverless cars.
Then and now
Although people have been experimenting with autonomous vehicles since the 1920’s, the first real successes in the field emerged in the 80’s. It’s not been until much more recent years though that driverless cars have had a real shot at doing what they do best on real public roads. Google’s self-driving cars have been zipping around Californian cities for a few years now, and a number of different autonomous models have done huge cross country road trips. And while some wonder how long it will be before they can get their hands on one of these magical machines, it seems that many will be content to merely rent them. Google, Uber and Tesla all seem to be jockeying for position when it comes to driverless car rental, and one can only wonder how long it will be before car rental giants like Hertz, Budget and Avis jump on board. When will this happen?
The future of driverless cars
The answer to that question isn’t cut and dry of course, but it does seem that our roads will be dominated by driverless cars sooner rather than later. Agencies like New Zealand’s Ministry of Transport estimate that vehicles which can automatically perform actions like steering, braking and acceleration (but still may require a driver to take over at critical moments) are only about 5 years away. Some people are even more optimistic. Elon Musk, the visionary entrepreneur behind Tesla Motors, believes that by 2018 Tesla will be able to manufacture a driverless car that is safe and independent enough for its occupants to go to sleep while travelling. However, Musk also says that legislation will likely restrict the usage of this kind of car for another 1-3 years beyond that point.
The legal question
Which brings us to another reason that driverless cars aren’t already commonplace. The legal ramifications of a large metal object moving at high speeds without input from humans are a little troublesome to say the least. Although all reports point to the fact that autonomous cars are far safer than those with humans at the wheel, there’s still a chance that incidents will occur. Who is liable when things go wrong? Innovators, lawyers and transport authorities all agree that legislation will have to adapt to the brave new world that we will soon find ourselves in.
Whether you would rather trust the conservative estimates of transport ministries or believe the shining dreams of trailblazers like Elon Musk, it’s fairly apparent that we’ll see these marvels of modern engineering and technology on our roads sooner rather than later. In spite of the fact that there may be a bump or two in the road ahead for driverless cars, it looks like we won’t have long to wait before we get that long-dreamed-of morning commute sleep in.
Feature image credit: The NRMA, Flickr Creative Commons