Safety, fuel efficiency and convenience. Three of the factors driving the evolution of self-driving technology and perhaps at a faster pace than people realise.

Autonomous vehicles may still come with an intuitively futuristic association, but it is now a future that isn’t far off with 10 million cars fitted with self-driving features predicted to be on the road by 2020, according to recent research conducted by Business Insider Intelligence.

It turns out that the technology behind automation isn’t all that futuristic, autopilot is well established as the most effective mode for a large percentage of the average commercial flight.

Meanwhile, automated braking, acceleration and steering are all already fully available as options for drivers today. Collaboration and increased safety are emphasised in Subaru’s description of its pioneering EyeSight Driver Asset Technology, which offers drivers, “an extra set of eyes on the road and if need be, an extra foot on the brake.” Fitted into virtually all of the manufacturers new cars, EyeSight is one of the more advanced semi-autonomous solutions on the market, but there are several others and Mercedes, BMW and Honda are all expected to unveil autonomous, or close to autonomous vehicles by 2019. 

Photo credit: DrJohnBullas via / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo credit: DrJohnBullas via / CC BY-NC-ND

Are self-driving cars safer?

The question of safety is an interesting one. Thousands die in road accidents every year and many leading proponents of self-driving cars advocate the technology based on the idea that it will be safer, citing various studies that suggest anywhere between 80-95% of accidents are caused by ‘human error’.

Comparing those statistics with the safety of autonomous vehicles is difficult though. There isn’t a lot of driving time to base the comparison on and thorough enough testing to prove safety could potentially take hundreds of years, according to research from the RAND corporation. Further caution might be offered by the complicated issue of safety in relation to aircraft autopilot systems, where aviation authorities have voiced concerns that pilots are becoming overly reliant on automated systems in a context where only 1-in-10 trips take place per the flight plan (due to weather and other factors).

However, for a two to three hour drive that is predominantly on highways, self-driving features, where a vehicle can be set to maintain a certain distance behind the car ahead on the road with a maximum speed, are unquestionably more convenient, easier on the legs, and usually better in terms of fuel performance.

Photo credit: donjd2 via / CC BY
Photo credit: donjd2 via / CC BY

Convenience and fuel performance motivated a recent trial in Europe where six brands of automated truck tested a method called platooning, where one manually driven lorry is followed by a convoy of automated vehicles.

Impact in cities

With millions of residents and hundreds of thousands of cars, urban areas may be the complex of today’s mobility challenges. A multitude of factors, flows and purposes can only be partly managed without a modern sophisticated computing system. There are a number of different visions for transport in the cities of the future, even a ban on cars altogether, and it is easy to imagine that more advanced versions of current self-driving vehicles might play a role in a more effective and healthier city mobility system in the future. We’d highly recommend Ian Banks’ Circulate article for a deeper assessment of that potential future.

2020 is the current date consistently earmarked as a tipping point in terms of self-driving technology. That’s less than four years away and as more products hit the road, the pace of change is likely to continue to pick up.

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