The Roadblocks That Are Blocking the Rise of the Driverless Car
The world of motoring may be on the verge of one of the most dramatic changes in its history. The driverless car is close to becoming a reality, with Google, among others, already road-testing their models.
The Google car in particular seems well advanced and has already covered hundreds of thousands of miles in the US without any incidents. Will it be plain sailing now for the driverless car? Perhaps not. Here are some roadblocks that remain to be overcome before we can all sit back and let the computers do the driving.
Getting the technology right is one thing, but getting the legal situation sorted out remains a problem. Nobody, for example, seems quite sure how car insurance will work. Who will pay if one driverless car collides with another? The matter is still being debated, and many in the industry see this issue as one of the main barriers in the way of driverless motoring becoming a reality.
2) Street Mapping
For driverless cars to work safely, every single one of our roads will need to be digitally mapped. This is a mammoth undertaking, with more than four million roads to map just in the US. On the other hand, Google has a head start here, as it has already carried out a huge amount of mapping for its Google Street View project. According to sources at the tech giant, it shouldn't be too much of a problem for them to complete the work for their driverless cars.
3) Public Acceptance
This is a big one. Driverless cars may overcome all other hurdles, but if we, the motorists, don't want to buy them, then they are dead in the water. Safety is a huge problem, with around half of British drivers reporting that would not be comfortable as a passenger in an autonomous car. Around 40% of us say we do not trust such cars to be safe, and almost one in five drivers reports being 'horrified' at the prospect. The other problem is that many of us simply love to drive. This may not be an issue if the autonomous driving mode can be turned on and off when we want it, but true driverless cars, such as Google's latest vehicle, don't even have a steering wheel or pedals, so driving it yourself is not an option.
4) The Weather
Most of the testing of driverless cars has been conducted in California, where the warm and dry climate is almost perfect for driving. What is not known is how all of those cameras, lasers and other sensors will cope with thick fog and heavy snow or rain. Even driving at night, with lots of glare from oncoming headlights and overhead street lamps, may prove to be difficult for the technology.
It may surprise some, but even the most advanced driverless cars are having trouble with reversing. Most need the help of a human driver to carry out such manoeuvres. Although most of the companies involved say that it is a problem that can be solved, it seems that it has yet to become a priority for the developers.
Most observers concentrate on how a driverless car can 'see' the road ahead, but actually the computers also need to deploy other senses. Hearing is very important. Reports say that even the best driverless cars are having real difficulty when trying to make sense of the sound of emergency-vehicle sirens. Human drivers are well used to the sound and will respond appropriately by pulling over to the side of the road when we hear the siren of an ambulance approach from behind. We can also recognise a police officer waving us down. It seems that the driverless car still has some way to go before it can manage these sorts of everyday tasks.
This is perhaps the most basic problem. If driverless cars are to be widely adopted, then they need to be economically viable. Industry analysts predict that the driverless technology will add up to £7,000 to the price of a car in 2025, when the technology may be mature enough to market to the public. Whether the public will want to pay that premium remains to be seen.