Driverless Cars: When can we expect them and what’s the big deal

Self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles are vehicles that use an array of sensors (radar, lidar, sonar, GPS, odometry, etc.) to drive with little or no human input. In other words, a car with nobody behind the wheel. And while this may have been the stuff of ghost stories, urban myths and sci-fi back in the day, the idea is becoming normalized in modern times.

The technology is rapidly developing thanks to the likes of BMW, Mercedes, Lexus and Tesla. It’s not only car companies either, as Google and Apple are solidly onboard, with Apple signing a deal with Volkswagen in May 2018 to work on the project after being spurned by BMW and Mercedes. It isn’t a new type of car. It’s an altogether new technology, a new type of transportation and a new market. It’s also hardly surprising that the biggest names in tech want in and want to collaborate with well-established car companies to be the first in autonomous vehicles.

So, when will we see them on the roads?

Well, depending on the city you’re in, you may have already, with the American-based company Waymo officially logging over 10 million driverless miles this month alone. Currently, it’s still at the advanced testing stage, but the buzz it’s generating, as well as the investment from private corporations and governments alike, is big.

In 2015, the U.K. government introduced new laws for testing driverless vehicles on its roads and invested £20 million in research and development. Like most technology, fully driverless systems are likely to be expensive initially, so it may take a few years for prices to drop sufficiently for the average buyer. We can see this with the more advanced partial driverless systems available today, which currently are only available in expensive, high-end luxury cars.

And what does it all mean for driving-based jobs like the age-old professions of the trucker and the taxi driver? Well, it may be a few years off, but the chances are this will have a significant impact on the driving economy. The odds are that most jobs will be automated soon so this isn’t all that surprising, if not a tad depressing, and driverless lorries may indeed become a common sight on motorways like in the movie “Logan.” By 2020, it’s estimated we’ll begin to see the first cars on the road without steering wheels and pedals, with large delivery-based companies like Domino’s Pizza and Amazon likely to be early adopters of the technology.

Photo by Jucejuju / CC BY-SA 4.0

Caption: The Waymo self-driving car in San Francisco.

What does this means?

As driverless cars become more popularized and private companies inevitably begin managing and operating fleets of vehicles, it could mean fewer cars on the road, contributing to fewer emissions and congestion on your morning commute — which we all want. It could also spell an overall decline in car ownership and an increase in rental options. Regarding maintaining a strong profit margin with declining outright sales, car companies could end up switching from outright car sales to more subscription-based services like Netflix wherein you pay a fixed monthly fee and get, say, 50 rides that month from a robot chauffeur. Subscription-services could range from low-end Skodas to high-end BMWs, depending on how much you are looking to pay. All this is radical, but it could make economic sense for these companies going forward as the software that allows these cars to drive autonomously will likely require updates much in the same way as your smartphone. In previous years, once a car company saw a car through from design to manufacture to sale, they could pretty much forget about it and move on to the next design. Now, they are likely to have dedicated software teams continuously working on improving and updating the driverless systems, making them more robust and less prone to error.

Photo by TayebMEZAHDIA / CC0

That said, we love cars. We love owning them, and most of the time, we love driving them. Car ownership is a significant part of our culture and society, so who can say at this stage if a subscription service like this would take off. Perhaps most people will continue buying cars rather than renting a ride whenever they need to get somewhere. Perhaps driverless cars will only become popular in cities where traffic tends to be a problem and remain unheard of in rural areas and small towns, and maybe it will only be adopted for commercial use. It’s hard to say at this stage how this will all turn out, but we’re looking forward to catching a few extra minutes of sleep in the mornings, stretched out in the back seat on the way to work, instead of stressing out at traffic lights.

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