Self-driving cars part II: The problems

Earlier this week, we began a discussion about self-driving cars, which many believe will be the eventual future of transportation. General Motors, Ford, Nissan, Audi and Volvo are all working on their own versions of fully automated vehicles, as are other forward-thinking companies like Google. Many in the auto industry believe self-driving cars could be in widespread production within the next 10 years.

If and when this technology becomes a reality, it could theoretically eliminate traffic jams, improve fuel efficiency and reduce car accidents and road deaths by as much as 90 percent. But according to an article that recently appeared in MIT Technology Review, self-driving cars may be much more than a decade away.

According to the article’s author, the biggest challenge currently facing developers is the artificial intelligence and computer science needed to address all the challenges of driving in more complex environments such as city streets. Highway driving is comparatively simple, because vehicle technology does not have to account for pedestrians, stop lights, oncoming traffic and other hard-to-predict hazards.

As it currently exists today, self-driving car technology still requires human intervention when the driving environment becomes too complex. Unfortunately, however, humans are likely to stop paying attention when the car is in self-driving mode, which makes it a lot harder (and more dangerous) to have a human driver take over at a moment’s notice.

The article’s author also says that the high-tech sensors and computers that make self-driving prototypes so impressive are currently too expensive to implement in mass production. Like all technology, it will probably become cheaper over time. But right now, the production costs of a given self-driving vehicle would likely be prohibitively expensive for most consumers.

Finally, there is the issue of government regulation. Self-driving cars can legally be road-tested in several states, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other regulators have yet to come up with regulations that would allow for widespread use of these vehicles. The technology is far ahead of laws and regulations.

Although it may not be within the next decade, many are hopeful that self-driving cars will become a reality within their lifetime. Until or unless this happens, though, we imperfect human drivers will have to stay behind the wheel and do our best to prevent car accidents.

Source: MIT Technology Review, “Driverless Cars Are Further Away Than You Think,” Will Knight, Oct. 22, 2013