After all the hot air about autonomous vehicles, it’s fair to say the field has yet to live up to the hype. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the technicians and researchers behind the technology.
It’s more the case that the media, and sci-fi films, have enforced the idea that this technology is on our doorstep – a mere year or two away from flooding our roads with safe, sleek driverless vehicles.
With so many delays and so little apparent progress, the general population would be forgiven for thinking the whole enterprise is little more than a pipe-dream. Will fully autonomous cars hit our roads in our generation? That’s a question of how quickly we can put the finishing touches in place.
There are plenty of autonomous robots and vehicles in use already, though many of them we might overlook. Some drones are fully-autonomous, while there are fleets of boats on the sea that operate autonomously. Factory robots have been autonomous for years, albeit within a very safe and secure environment.
The problem with autonomous vehicles such as cars and trucks is simple: they operate on chaotic and often inconsistent, poorly maintained roads. Driverless cars use cameras to assess the environment in which they’re driving. So if a road has a worn or invisible line marking paint – common throughout the developed world – it could simply be unaware of where to turn the wheels. Perfecting our road markings amounts to a huge infrastructural project, as does maintaining them. But it’s critical if we’re to see fully autonomous vehicles on our roads in the next 40 years.
As cited above, autonomous technology has already been developed in several fields where risks and dangers are smaller and easier to overcome. Some automation in road vehicles is also in place, such as cruise control, lane control on motorways, and other partial assistive technology that still requires a driver at the steering wheel or a remote controller back at base.
It’s likely that to go fully autonomous, the technology for cars and trucks still has a long way to go. Many operators of this technology still have a control center with vehicle monitors, suggesting a level of human oversight is still necessary for these vehicles’ safety. It’s Anyone’s guess as to how long this technology will take to perfect, though it’s worth listening to researchers rather than CEOs on that question.
Another question is perhaps a little more nebulous but certainly no less important: how will we get around in 30 years’ time? Will we still require personal transport at all, or will public transport improve to the point at which private transportation is obsolete? Will we use roads or the skies?
The climate crisis and energy resource concerns mean that we’ll almost certainly be using electric vehicles exclusively within our generation. Yet it remains to be seen whether the driverless car will be viable in a future transport network. It’s difficult at present to predict.
Fully autonomous road vehicles may be a distant dream, but there are some practical and technological ways in which researchers are trying to bring them to our roads – perhaps within our generation.