Self-Driving Cars: Where Are They Right Now?

When some people think of “self-driving cars,” they probably imagine a car that seems to completely have a “brain” of its own; a car that can safely drive without any human intervention at all; a car that is able to think and solve problems on its own; a car that can successfully recognize any object it comes across on the road. But many of these same people might also conclude that such cars—for legal or practical reasons—will never be commonplace, street legal and safe. However, there are indeed a number of companies currently investing a lot of money in self-driving car technology, and they appear to have very ambitious aims as far as how truly self-driving such cars will be. Uber just hired a large team of talent from a robotics lab at Carnegie Mellon. The Chinese company Baidu—as well as many other big-name auto manufacturers and tech companies, including Tesla, Google, and Ford—has applied for permits from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test its self-driving cars, and has hired a large team of engineers to work in Silicon Valley. GM has just partnered with, and is investing $500 million in, the driving service company Lyft. Make no mistake, many companies are racing to be first and best in autonomous self-driving cars.

How Autonomous Are We Talking?

True self-driving cars are not automated but operated entirely by the computer system within the car itself. They are able to learn from experience. This is why companies developing this technology have applied for permits (in certain places such as California where they have been able to) in order to have their cars log as many driving hours as possible. This artificial intelligence uses several different kinds of sensory related technologies and very sophisticated computer algorithms and hardware. However, all of these cars, once legally permitted on the road, will still allow the driver to take control of the vehicle if necessary, for obvious safety reasons.

How Will People React to Self-Driving Cars?

One ambitious company plans to make self-driving cars less frightening to pedestrians through signals (visual or auditory) made by the car; for example, what it is about to do next, is implement a system that would enable the car to show, in a friendly way, that it sees a nearby pedestrian and indicate whether it is safe for the pedestrian to cross the road. Emoticons might be employed too!

What Are the Potential Benefits of Self-Driving Cars?

Firstly, lives saved from human error. Think for a moment about all of the distracted, fatigued, rushed and stressed-out drivers who are on the road at any one time. The number of people who die each year on the road in the United States alone is comparable to the immediate deaths from the Hiroshima bombing. How wonderful it would be to save so many lives.

Another benefit is much reduced traffic congestion. Self-driving cars would be more efficient and more perfect in keeping traffic moving along. Look here for a visual depiction of why.

How about less stress from driving? What if the physical/emotional toll of rush-hour commutes were eliminated from our lives? One could read a book or watch a movie in their self-driven car, or even take a nap. Rush-hour traffic would not be filled with a cacophony of car honks anymore.

And what about the economic effects of self-driving cars? Think of all the money saved from fewer accidents on the road. Think of employees not wasting mental effort and energy on commutes. Think of the gas saved by more efficient driving. Think of more shopping or working via more freedom of mobility for all. A 2013 report by Morgan Stanley predicts $5.6 trillion saved around the globe annually.

At this point, the future seems bright for self-driving cars. The technology will obviously have to be vigorously regulated. And it will take some getting used to for everyone. But if you have ever used Uber or Lyft at the push of a button, and dealt with a nice, prompt and polite driver in what was a seamless experience, it probably would not be too much of a stretch to envision a world full of self-driving cars. It is amazing how quickly people will adapt to convenience after getting a taste of it.

—Jay Oliver

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