Driverless cars: What are they and where are they headed?

Everything you need to know about the unstoppable onslaught of the driverless car

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Driverless cars are everywhere at the minute. From Uber to Apple, it seems everyone’s got one in development. But what actually are they? Are driverless cars safe? What are their pros and cons? And when will they be available in the UK?

We’re doing a deep dive into the driverless car industry, to bring you everything you need to know about the automotive technology du jour.

Driverless cars: What are they?

Driverless cars – sometimes referred to as self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles – are cars which combine a combination of AI, sensors, radars and cameras, but they’re lacking in one familiar component: a human operator.

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So they self-operate. But what exactly is it that qualifies driverless cars as fully autonomous? They must wield the capacity to navigate without human intervention to a pre-set location. What’s more, they’ve got to be able to travel on roads that haven’t been adapted specifically for their use. 

Driverless cars: Are they safe?

The biggest question that comes to mind when the term “driverless car” is mentioned is the safety one. But instead of asking how something that’s not even wholly safe with human operators can be safe without them, you’ve got to posit that perhaps the human operators are contributing substantially to that safety lapse. Human error and all that...

That being said, driverless cars aren’t without their safety issues, and serious ones at that. In fact, autonomous driving technology has hit headlines in a big way recently; April saw a fatal collision involving one of Uber’s driverless cars and an Arizona woman.

So in short, no, driverless cars aren’t failsafe. And their autonomous status brings up some interesting, if divisive, issues about culpability; who’s to blame if there’s an autonomous car collision? How is justice sought for the victims, and more importantly, from whom?

Driverless cars: Pros and cons

As with most technologies, driverless cars come accompanied by a host of pros and cons. While they’re invaluable in many aspects, there are some major caveats that make some want to – forgive me – put the brakes on the driverless car revolution.

We mull over the pros – and then the cons – of driverless cars, to make sure you’re fully up to speed on the technology.

Driverless car pros: Fewer accidents

One notable pro of driverless cars is that you omit the potential for human error. At present, many traffic accidents are preventable, and happen as a consequence of lapsed human judgement. This doesn’t just mean speeding, it pertains to tiredness, sudden loss of control at the wheel, distractions and any manner of human vulnerabilities.

Take away the potential for human error, and you’re taking away the potential for a world of accidents.

Driverless car pros: Time saving

Another biggie is the time, effort and energy people would save if they didn’t have to drive places. Commutes could become things of joy, productivity could go through the roof, more books could be read, more films watched, more music absentmindedly enjoyed. In a world where go-go-go seems to be the overarching mantra, driverless cars would free people up with a few more hours to enjoy the world around them.

And what else is tech for if not bolstering time efficiency and general quality of life?

Driverless car pros: Disability access

Driverless cars could also help enhance mobility and access for disabled individuals, many of whom rely on public transport or the assistance of others to get around. Driverless cars could provide the disabled community with increased autonomy and ease of mobility.

Driverless car cons: Accidents

Like any technology, driverless cars aren’t completely immune to accidents – as many recent examples have shown. The industry already has a number of fatalities under its proverbial belt, as the tragedy in Arizona provides an all-too-recent testament to.

What’s more, it can be a tough pill to swallow for victims’ families, knowing that justice cannot be served for a needless death. When the car’s operator is non-existent, who is to be held accountable? Would it be the car manufacturer? Or the software developer? Could blame be pinned on pedestrians? Driverless car crashes are a difficult to thing to police.

Driverless car cons: Safety risks in adverse weather conditions

Despite their lack of human involvement, driverless cars are not invulnerable. They can’t operate at a high level of safety in all weather conditions, which means users find themselves stranded or in trouble during adverse weather conditions.

Driverless car cons: Better infrastructure needed

It’s all well and good developing a (reasonably) faultless driverless car, but what about the corresponding technology? In the world of mere mortals, current infrastructure such as traffic lights are prone to breaking down, or at least needing the odd bout of maintenance and replacement.

In the event of traffic lights not working, driverless cars wouldn’t be able to, for example, interpret the hand signals delivered transport police. They might be smart, but they’re not that smart. Situations like this could wreak potential havoc on the roads.

Driverless cars: When are they coming to the UK?

In some capacity, they’re already here. Advanced tests on self-driving cars are already taking place on UK roads. Plus, there’s a pre-existing consortium of British tech companies collaborating to pioneer research into the driverless car industry, aptly named Driven.

According to its website, Driven’s main objective is “insuring, ensuring and exporting fleet wide Level 4 connected autonomy”. Its platform unites autonomy specialists and transport experts, along with “world-class innovators, key enablers [and] disseminators” in order to trial autonomous vehicles.

However, with recent spate of driverless car-related accidents, the onset of autonomous driving might be slowing down somewhat. Commentators reckon we won’t be seeing self-driving cars unveiled on a commercial level for quite some time, due to recent tragedies.

That being said, the UK government has expressed an objective to become a “leader” in autonomous tech. Back in 2016, the government announced new laws for testing autonomous vehicles on UK roads, and invested a hefty £20 million into research and development for the technology.

With more money, time and effort being sunk into autonomous driving technology – and by household names like Apple, Uber and Tesla, to boot – the driverless car revolution could be coming a lot sooner than anticipated.

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