Autonomous cars are just around the corner. Or are they? It’s the tech everyone’s talking about, yet the reality is we know very little about it. And what we do know is confusingly bound up in reams of legislation. So, let’s try to find answers to 10 of the most obvious questions.
What are autonomous cars?
These are cars that use electronics to control the driving process. But there’s a difference between an autonomous or self-driving car and a driverless car. A self-driving car needs a driver at its helm. A driverless car doesn’t. While a driverless car must be self-driving, a self-driving car isn’t always driverless.
Will autonomous cars stop driving for fun?
Currently, no one is suggesting that self-driving cars would take total control away from drivers permanently. Sportscar makers have been adamant that while their cars might use technology such as autonomous emergency braking to improve safety, they won’t wrestle complete control from the driver. When asked about self-driving tech recently, Porsche’s CEO Dr Oliver Blume, replied rather scathingly: “One wants to drive a Porsche by oneself. An iPhone belongs in your pocket, not on the road.”
Aren’t self-driving cars nearly here?
The technology is here now – think intelligent adaptive cruise control on even mid-range motors – but we’re quite a way from cars taking over because legislation hasn’t kept pace with the know-how. First we’re likely to see ‘platooning’ among trucks. A line of trucks will be wirelessly connected on motorways, taking orders from the truck at the front of the ‘platoon’. An experiment has already taken place on the continent, conducted by truck makers. It was such an undramatic success, the world’s media barely registered it!
Will driverless cars mobilise people who can’t drive?
Everyone would like to be able to recline the seat and have a snooze while their car whisks them quickly and safely to their destination. But in legislation terms, it’s one thing having a self-driving car with a capable human ready to re-take the controls if required. It’s another altogether if the car has to do everything itself. The route favoured by many is the gentle approach. Gill Pratt, head of the Toyota Research Institute said: “We think that we can add intelligence to cars that works in parallel with drivers — like a guardian angel that’s watching what you do and intervenes when you are about to make a mistake.”
Will autonomous cars eliminate human error?
It’s often said that 90 per cent of road accidents are caused by human error. But if a computer is driving the cars, won’t that become a thing of the past? It should, except a computer is only as good as whoever is programming it and that will invariably be a human. So if a car encounters a situation that it hasn’t been told how to react to, there could still be a crash. And it will still be the fault of a human.
Will they decide between life and death?
A Mercedes engineer caused a minor furore when he suggested his company’s autonomous cars would prioritise their occupants over pedestrians. Christoph von Hugo said: “If you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one. Save the one in the car.” However, he went on to say that actually that question will be redundant. Engineers are working at making cars capable of avoiding crashes.
How will connecting self-driving cars help?
For a start, connected cars will be able to travel in platoons on motorways, rather like a road train. More cars will be able to share the same road space and they’ll travel closer together. A connected car will register if there’s a traffic jam by receiving and processing data from the cars in front and it’ll avoid that road. And it will know if there’s an accident ahead so will take evasive action.
Will autonomous cars reduce the number of cars?
There are concerns that self-driving or driverless cars will have so many benefits, they will increase the number of cars on the road. Dr Gregory Offer leads the mechanical engineering division of the Electrochemical Science and Engineering Group at London’s Imperial College. He said: “Automated vehicles promise many benefits: improved safety, increasing the numbers of cars we can fit on our roads, decreasing congestion, and significantly reducing the biggest cost of driving: our time. This could increase the amount of driving, and is called the rebound effect.”
Will self-driving cars make pollution worse?
Of course more driving could equal more pollution. Dr Offer said: “Automated vehicles could, if used incorrectly and powered by combustion engines, make emissions and pollution much worse.” He believes it’s up to governments to ensure that self-driving or driverless cars go hand in hand with electrification to ease air quality concerns.
Will they make public transport obsolete?
This is a complex question. Public transport is likely to become self-driving too eventually, which could make it cheaper. And in cities there is only finite road and parking space so the amount of vehicles that will be allowed on them will have to be limited, which may make car owning more expensive. One thing is certain: autonomous cars could eventually change the whole transport landscape.