They are all over the news and seem to be the transportation of the future: self-driving cars. No matter what you call them, autonomous or self-driving cars are almost inescapable, with news of new developments coming out nearly every day. The technology is advanced, but the idea is relatively simple: a car that can drive itself anywhere and take passengers to wherever they want to go, safely. Autonomous cars are billed as the answer to distracted driving, transportation issues, driver-caused accidents, and more. But are the cars really autonomous?
The simple is answer is that no, autonomous cars aren't actually autonomous. A lot of progress has been made, especially with practically every major car manufacturer, plus big companies like Apple, Uber, and Google, working on their versions of the project, but we aren't yet at the point where a car can safely drive a passenger on the open road on its own.
Take for example Uber's pilot self-driving fleet. According to the company, users would be able to call the self-driving car to pick them up and take them where they needed to go--the same idea as a traditional Uber, but without the driver. However, users found that when the self-driving car picked them up, there were actually two other people in the car: one person acting as a backup driver in case the car went rogue, and another person taking notes and doing analysis on the drive and overall experience. A truly autonomous car wouldn't need anyone there to act as a driver in case anything went wrong, and the computer system would likely pull in all the data and analysis that was needed. Similarly, many of Google's self-driving car tests have taken place with people in the car ready to intervene if something goes wrong. While this is a natural step in the development of a brand new technology, it adds to the confusion of autonomous cars being labeled as such when the technology just isn't there yet.
One of the biggest limitations of autonomous cars is that they still can't drive everywhere. The current versions of self-driving cars only really work in big cities that are completely mapped out, and even then they run the risk of making mistakes in areas that are busy or difficult to navigate. Because most self-driving cars use systems that rely on virtually mapped roads and surroundings, they wouldn't work in rural or less populated areas that haven't yet been mapped or where weather isn't always ideal. That capability will likely come, but it will take time and resources to map and maintain everywhere people want to drive. There are also issues with regulation and control, especially as different companies develop technology at different speeds. Developing autonomous technology forces companies to face difficult questions, especially when it comes to decision-making abilities of cars and who to focus on keeping the safest. If a car can keep its passenger safe, but doing so puts bystanders on the street at risk, is that really the best decision to make? Self-driving car developers and lawmakers must answer questions like this and create industry-wide standards for safety.
Nearly everyone in the industry agrees that eventually we will get to fully autonomous cars, but that likely won't happen for at least several more years. However, when they do hit the roads, autonomous cars are sure to change everything about how we travel, live, and work.
Learn more by watching The Future in Five.