To drive a car, you need a licence. It’s how it’s been for many decades, but it might not be like that forever because the car might be able to drive you. Driverless cars, also called self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles have been under development for years now, and in the last five years they have made so much progress that they are now faster than a race driver, safer than the safest motorist and can accurately navigate busy city streets in rush hour right through to winding mountain passes.
Two scenarios will eventually evolve:
- You are still in control of the car and need a licence, but the car can take over if you want it to.
- You are not given control of the car and you don’t need a licence. For example, it might be an automated taxi that you hire, or you call your own car to go and pick up your child who wouldn’t have authorisation to take over the controls either by fingerprint or retina scan or some other way
Scenario one is likely to be first because it is the most acceptable. Technically, planes could fly themselves from destination to destination but pilots are there in case things go wrong, and to make passengers feel comfortable. The public isn’t ready to accept a fleet of driverless cars on the roads yet.
What does this mean in Australia?
In the cities, driverless cars will be able to function easily. Once you get off the beaten track, though, they will struggle like any other driver would. A driver can, at the moment, make a judgement about whether a vehicle is likely to be able to traverse a particular piece of road; automated cars are designed for smooth surfaces right now. This isn’t to say they won’t have off-road smarts eventually as the military does have vehicles that will cope with difficult terrain autonomously, but those vehicles are designed specifically for that.
What’s already out there?
What you can buy
Manufacturers like Honda already have lane departure warning systems that gently steer you back between the white lines. Honda’s system, available on the Accord pictured on the left, is called Advanced Driver Assist System (ADAS) and consists of collision mitigation braking (it’ll brake for you if it detects you’re about to hit something), Adaptive Cruise Control (a cruise control that adjusts your speed to the car in front by using a radar to detect the distance) and Lane Keep Assist System (cameras monitor the white lines and if you don’t indicate the car will gently steer you back between the lines). LKAS works well on roads with consistent lines and smooth, gentle bends – I drove it for 30km on the motorway and only had to touch the steering wheel four times to make minor corrections.
What’s in prototype form
Google’s self-driving Toyota Prius is the most well-known of all the autonomous vehicles. It is capable of navigating coned courses at speed, as well as driving through busy San Diego. Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz and others have demonstrated systems that are functional, but not commercialised yet.
Here’s a quick overview of GM’s new EN-V which talks to other cars like it so they can plan routes around each other and link up to travel in convoy.
A likely scenario: why would you use a self-driving car?
You want to drive to work, but it’s rush hour and you can’t face it. Plus, you really want to read the news or catch up on emails. Set your car to automated mode, program the destination and it will calculate the best route based on downloaded knowledge of current traffic conditions. This includes accidents, road conditions, known roadworks, and historical data from previous journeys.
You arrive at work refreshed and prepared for the day. Now you can send your car back to collect the kids and drop them off at school while your partner uses your other car to drive to a different destination.
What are the advantages of self-driving cars?
- Traffic congestion will decrease because vehicles can travel closer together at higher speed without fear of colliding into one another. We will also be able to hire cars that are the right size for the purpose of the journey, such as a small single-seat car for taking one person to work, or a bigger SUV for taking the family on a trip to the countryside. Smaller cars occupy less space, and really narrow cars can travel side-by-side in the same lane. Smoother driving styles will help reduce the type of behaviour in regular cars that causes traffic jams.
- Because congestion will decrease, average speeds will increase. To a point, this will mean better fuel economy because cars are not efficient when travelling slowly and in a stop-start situation. It’s unlikely we’ll see self-driving cars travelling at 200kph, though, because physics means that a vehicle has to push a huge mass of air out the way and that makes fuel economy get exponentially worse as speeds increase. Also, if something happens, the chances of surviving an impact at 200kph are slim without rollcages and protective equipment.
- Productivity will increase because average speeds will increase therefore we will spend less time in our cars.
- The cost of transportation of goods should decrease because congestion won’t hold up freight as much
- Fuel usage will decrease because driverless cars will be efficient. They are also likely to be hybrids or full electric (within cities), and that will further reduce emissions.
- Injuries and deaths will reduce because driverless cars won’t make the same errors as humans. They are only likely to be involved in accidents caused by cars piloted by humans, and even then, they will have much quicker reactions to try to reduce the severity of the collision and protect the occupants. In fact, there may be different settings depending on how many people are in the car. If it’s just the driver, then the driver’s side door and front corner are the obvious weak spots, but the rear opposite corner would be able to be sacrificed. The equation would be different if the car detected passengers in the rear.
- Public transport usage will decline unless public transport is made very cheap. In high-density cities, public transport will have its place because even with the efficiencies of self-driving cars, you still won’t be able to move that many people around without mass transit. But in the suburbs where buses are infrequent and often on inconvenient schedules, they will struggle.
- Short airline flights will decrease because of the time wasted travelling to the airport and waiting to board, and the same at the other end. If open road speeds increase, any flight less than two hours will probably take longer, unless you are taking it to thwart some difficult geography like a mountain pass
- Parking will be different. Fewer parking spaces will be required because less people will bring their cars into the city. Instead, autonomous cars will be held in staging areas where they are rotated out as they are hired, returned to be cleaned and then hired out again. Road layouts will change and large parking buildings may be come obsolete.
- Cars will be rented based on their interior features such as comfort, load carrying capacity and technology integration, and exterior features such as their ability to cross specific terrain or tow a boat.
- Households that would usually have two cars may now only need one and that means that the demand for houses with two- or three-car garages may decline. Land is expensive, so why waste ten square metres on somewhere to store something when you can now summon it on demand.
- New job opportunities will be created in creating software for these vehicles.
- Insurance premiums should reduce in price because if the car is in control then there will be less chance of an at-fault accident.
- Maintenance and licencing will become more efficient as your car will drive itself to a pre-approved maintenance shop for servicing, and any safety check inspections.
What are the problems that self-driving cars will bring?
- The technology is new and therefore there will be situations where it will fail
- Because the vehicles will be more efficient the government’s tax take will be less and this will have to be made up somewhere
- Keeping the vehicles clean could be a problem
- Refuelling will need to be done manually unless some kind of automated booth can be designed
- Accommodating peak hour bookings will mean that some people may not be able to get a vehicle.
- Some jobs will disappear or reduce dramatically, such as drivers and driving instructors.
We started this article by asking if you would need a driving licence when self-driving cars become popular. Initially, cars are likely to be dual purpose and therefore having a driving licence will be either essential or at least strongly advised.
Eventually, though, you won’t need a driving licence because getting in a driverless car will be like getting in a taxi now, except without a driver. But that’s perhaps two or three decades away, and if you live rurally it might never be completely reliable. You’re quite safe to get your driver’s licence now – you’ll be needing it for a while yet.
Readers – would you own a driverless car? Let us know your thoughts.