Experts say we're decades away from fully-autonomous cars. Here's why.
- Although many new cars feature technology that partially assists with driving, we still do not have fully self-driving cars available for purchase.
- In addition to perfecting the technology required for autonomous vehicles, there are a number of other factors standing in the way.
- Some of these issues include poor road infrastructure in the US, a lack of communication systems needed to connect cars with one another, and the additional traffic laws needed to regulate these vehicles.
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: This is Volvo's 360c concept car, and it's just one idea of what completely driverless cars might look like one day. That means cars without even a steering wheel that can safely navigate public roads entirely on their own. But with how much we hear about self-driving technology making its way into everyday cars, it's hard not to wonder: How much longer do we have to wait?
Understanding just how far we've come with self-driving technology can be a bit tricky. To help define how sophisticated the automated technology actually is, the Society of Automotive Engineers classifies these systems using five levels.
Level 1 is driver assistance, where the vehicle is able to control steering or braking, but not both simultaneously. Level 2 is partial automation, where the car can assist with both steering and braking simultaneously, but your attention is required on the road at all times. Both Tesla's Autopilot and General Motors' Super Cruise are examples of this. Level 3 is conditional automation, where certain circumstances allow the car to handle most aspects of driving and the driver has the ability to temporarily take their eyes off the road. Level 4 is high automation, where, in the right conditions, the car can take full control, giving the driver a chance to focus on other tasks. And Level 5 is full automation. In this hypothetical situation, the car drives you, and there isn't even a steering wheel.
So what level are we currently at? Most experts would agree: somewhere between Levels 2 and 3. However, one of their biggest concerns is the public's misconception that we're much further along.
Bryan Reimer: There's an incredible amount of confusion in the general public around the context of self-driving. In our survey data here, about 23% of respondents believe that a self-driving vehicle is available for purchase today. And a lot of that has to do with statements by Elon Musk and others talking about the driverless capabilities and self-driving capabilities of vehicles. These are systems that are meant to assist the driver under the supervision of a driver.
Narrator: So, is it simply the limits of these automated systems that's holding us back? Actually, there are a number of other factors in the way. For starters, our roads. Simply put, the roads, especially in the United States, are too much of a mess to support cars that can drive by themselves.
Bryan: So, while many individuals out there are really working on the development of self-reliant automation, in essence, a robot that's fully capable of making its own decisions in today's infrastructure, the reality is, today's infrastructure is not well equipped for autonomy. In essence, potholes, poor lane markings, and all the other crumbling aspects of our nation's infrastructure aren't going to support high-tech well.
Narrator: In addition to more public roads needing signs and lane markings that self-driving cars can clearly make out, vehicles need to be wirelessly connected with that traffic infrastructure, as well as one another, in order to interact with the world around them flawlessly.
Fortunately, automakers like Volvo already have technology that allows their cars to communicate with each other and alert drivers of hazards via a cloud-based network. This type of connected technology is being tested even further within driverless cars at Mcity, a 32-acre mock city and testing facility at the University of Michigan.
Greg McGuire: So, what are connected vehicles? When we say "connected" at Mcity, we're really referring not to streaming Netflix into your passenger seat so much, that's a pretty solved problem in the industry, but in how vehicles and infrastructure can be connected together for lots of other benefits like safety. The idea is a low-latency way for vehicles to tell other vehicles and anything else that wants to listen where they are and where they're going.
Narrator: So, once traffic infrastructure and communication is handled, what else do we need to address? Well, traffic laws.
Governments have a number of important decisions to make in society's transition to self-driving vehicles. In the beginning stages, they'll have to define what weather conditions are appropriate for vehicles to be operating fully autonomously. This is due to the fact that many of these car systems can be disrupted by rain and snow. One industry they could look to for guidance is the airline industry, who doesn't hesitate to cancel flights in inclement weather.
They'll also have to initially find a way for autonomous vehicles to safely navigate public roads amongst traditional cars. A possible solution could be designated lanes, similar to the high occupancy vehicles found on highways, and bus lanes found in certain cities.
Ayoub Aouad: The government's kind of leaving it up to states to decide what's going on, just because the technology's so new and they still don't really understand what it's going to look like in the end. Once the government does fully get involved, the federal government, they're gonna have to speak to lobbyists, people that represent truck drivers and taxi comissions. They're going to realize a lot of jobs could be lost, and that's going to be difficult. And then, also, liability. If these cars are on the roads and getting into accidents, who is liable?
Narrator: With all of these things considered, back to our original question: How soon until we have self-driving cars?
Ayoub: I'd say within the decade it's gonna be on highways, but if we're talking about being able to take your car wherever you want across the United States, being able to travel through New York City and sleep the whole time, I don't think we're anywhere close to that. Probably several decades away from that.
Bryan: Carmakers and tech companies are very heavily focused on the context of driverless technologies. Now, I'm not saying that that's not the future. It is the future. But, as many have begun to admit publicly, that future is further away than anybody has realistically considered, to date. We as humans are really good at predicting the future, we're not so good at the timelines. And the timeline to driverless technology changing how I live and move is probably in the order of several decades, if not further away.
Greg: How close are we to the Jetson's car? We're still a ways away, in my opinion. It isn't really a matter of when these technologies will arrive, to me, but can we be ready and utilize them in the best way possible.
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