Autonomous Cars: Science-Fiction Is Fast Becoming Science-Fact

  • Author: GILES KIRKLAND

1990 doesn’t seem that far away – most of us will have vivid memories of that time that haven’t been dimmed by the passage of time, but technologically, it was a very different world.

Arnold Swarzenegger was starring in the hit movie ‘Total Recall’; a virtual vacation, memories of trips to Planet Mars … it was totally science-fiction at its best, right down to Johnny Cab – an autonomous taxi cab.

Less than thirty years later and we’re still no closer to going to Mars (heck, it’s doubtful that we’ll ever land on the Moon again) but we do (almost) have a Johnny Cab – autonomous vehicles are here.

autonomous-cars

It’s true that the technology does exist in the automotive industry with so many producers offering more and more advanced gadgets in their cars. It is also true that technically, we could hail a smart vehicle, tell it where to go and sit back and relax as it does all the work, but … legally, it’s a different matter; legislation demands that a driver should be behind the steering wheel at all times, ready to take control if needed.

The Constant Factor

It is widely acknowledged that Karl Benz invented the first motorcar back in 1886, since then we’ve gone from single-cylinder engines producing a few bhp right through to multi-cylinder, fuel-injected, almost art like creations that produce hundreds of horsepower for each cylinder.

The one remaining constant in that 130+ years of development is the sentient, organic lump behind the controls – the human.

Driving has become almost instinctive, just as cavemen knew how to keep warm, it seems that driving is another skill that is just there (to a greater or lesser degree) – Lewis Hamilton started driving a kart at 6 years of age, winning races at just eight.

Self-Driven Psychological Barriers

It’s perhaps for this reason that BMW are now working with a team of psychologists to overcome the fears that we might feel when being driven by the car, rather than the car being driven by us.

concept-autonomous-car

“How do we make humans feel safe when being driven in a robot, by what is effectively a robot?” says BMW board director Peter Schwarzenbauer. The key to that statement is the word robot – BMW have found that people are much more at ease if they can build a relationship with the vehicle, if it isn’t just a piece of technology like a washing machine or even a smartphone. It needs to be smart in more than one-way.

Would we feel more comfortable in an autonomous vehicle if there was a human form behind the wheel, ala Johnny Cab?

Autonomous Driving

Many manufacturers are incorporating autonomous driving technology within their vehicles, some brands are taking small steps – the ability to ‘call up’ your car from your garage, send to the car off to park itself or full autonomous driving for short periods, usually 90 seconds.

Other manufacturers like Tesla are investing heavily in self-driving tech, both in terms of their future and financially.

Tesla have literally covered millions of miles with their self-driving vehicles, and while there have been some problems and one major incident resulting in a fatality, you’d have to agree with the statistics that prove autonomous driving is safer and more efficient (The fatal crash was proven to be unrelated to the autonomous technology).

Development of the technology continues daily; recent footage from a dashcam has been released showing a Tesla predicting a crash and coming to a complete halt before the accident even occurred. You could argue that the end result would have been the same with an aware driver behind the wheel, but how would an inexperienced driver have coped? Or even someone at the end of a 12-hour workday?

Back to the Human Element

And that is part of the problem with the technology – yes, it is extremely clever, it can predict the future, but what about the human controlled car behind the Tesla? Would they have been as quick to recognize what was going on upfront? As far as they are concerned, the Tesla is just slowing for no apparent reason.

Many manufacturers believe that the technology is capable of delivering the perfect Johnny Cab experience today, it is in fact the human element that is holding us back – that uncomfortable feeling of not being in control of a vehicle.

We have spent decades perfecting our instincts when it comes to behaviour behind the wheel, Tesla et al want to change that almost overnight, and while the human brain is a fantastic and wonderful thing, it won’t simply be reprogrammed like a micro-processor. 

Self-driving or autonomous vehicles are a wonderful thing, there is no doubting that they will make driving a safer pastime, or that insurance premiums (in theory) will reduce, but that is only when we completely remove the human element from the equation – how long will it be until every single vehicle is driverless?

Until that day arrives, there is always going to be a human element to driving, and while that element is present, so are the risks that we associate with driving today.

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