Autonomous cars. Where we are and what we’re aiming for.

 

Up until a few years ago autonomous cars didn’t seem to really be on the horizon. A product that was felt an inevitability, but one far off in the future. Mercedes had pioneered some elements of dynamic cruise control, but otherwise the industry, at least outwardly, seemed fairly quiet. Newer innovations included lane guidance and auto braking, being developed initially by Volvo and now widespread across almost all brands.

Within the last 3 – 5 years there has been huge progress and we’re in a position where you can walk into a showroom and drive out in a car that can almost drive itself. I say almost because as it stands no manufacturer has reached the point of perfection as yet, but it appears to be getting ever closer.

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Tesla Model X with Autopilot.

Tesla have been renowned for their Autopilot, which sells itself as self driving, but this is more of an advanced form of cruise control, relying on the driver to take control whenever the car reaches a point it can’t quite understand – but every day the thousands of Tesla Model S and X on the roads contribute more knowledge to Tesla’s AI, constantly improving the product.

The latest models now come as standard with all of the hardware for self driving, but the software remains locked unless you’re willing to pay a hefty price tag. What this means though, is that for every Tesla sold with the hardware, Tesla can understand how the car would have responded whenever it gets into an emergency situation and see if Autopilot would have prevented the emergency or accident. It does seem though that Tesla are providing the hardware on all cars for their benefit, to be able to compile your driving data and enhance the Autopilot product for the customers who can afford the extra price of safety.

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Volvo is another manufacturer keen to lead the self driving market, and they’re known as a company which prides itself on being very much safety first. Introducing some of the key safety elements into vehicles, they even introduced the safety belt – and avoided patenting it – so all manufacturers could use this technology and save lives, even if customers had decided against purchasing a Volvo.

Volvo are making strides with their self driving technology and have partnered with UBER in the USA to test their cars. This hasn’t been without controversy though, with UBER failing to get appropriate licenses for this and having to move the trial from San Francisco to Pittsburgh. They’re also trialling self driving cars in Gothenberg and in summer 2018 this trial also moves to London.

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A Volvo XC90 self driving for UBER.

The progress that companies are making with autonomous driving has increased in speed. From just a few years ago, fairly basic technologies such as lane keeping assist and road sign recognition have now been combined into a more useful package. With more mileage and trials by the major car companies it seems like a self driving future is inevitable.

It also brings about the challenge to car companies of non traditional brands taking over their place. UBER, Google and Apple are all competing as well so the competition is ever increasing.

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One of the self driving fleet from Waymo (previously Google).

Of course, with cars driving themselves, plenty of road users will have concerns, and rightly so in some cases as proven by recent high profile accidents such as a Tesla Model S crashing under a trailer and killing the driver. This has been associated with the driver not paying attention to his surroundings, but perhaps he was taking the name Autopilot more truly to it’s name then Tesla intended.

There are also other concerns, how will self driving cars change car ownership? Will self driving cars create a risk of external control limiting your usage, perhaps in the  form of hackers, or a controlling government implementing curfews. What will people do with the time freed up from driving? Will there be job losses when self driving lorries/trucks/buses take to the roads?

This new technology opens an whole wealth of issues, it’s an interesting time ahead.

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