Autonomous Cars Are Around the Corner

Fall Asleep at the Wheel with Driverless Cars

At a recent Consumer Electronics Show, a line of taxi cab drivers stood and watched as a little driverless pod took visitors around the parking lot of the Las Vegas Convention Center. And while the scene must have seemed very futuristic for the conventional cabbies, in fact they could very well be looking at their own future; one that takes them out of the driver’s seat and will eventually eliminate their jobs.

Driverless cars, also known as autonomous vehicles, are being developed and tested by several companies including Apple, Uber and Google on the technology side, as well as automakers Toyota, Volkswagen, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler. All of these companies are racing ahead with the idea that the next big thing in personal transportation is a vehicle that eliminates the need for a driver by using radar–like sensors—called Lidar—and highly sophisticated computer programs to detect and adjust to surrounding traffic.

The shift toward self–driving cars is coming. . . and it’s coming quickly. Over the next three model years, semi– autonomous vehicles from Tesla, Audi, Volvo, Mercedes and Cadillac will be among the first to hit showrooms, with features that are already in place in many new cars on the road today. These include:

Adaptive Cruise Control – Adjusts your speed to maintain a safe distance between you and the car in front of you.
Lane Departure Warning – Sends an alert when you start to stray from your lane and can automatically nudge the car back into the center of the road.
Blind Spot Warning – Can see vehicles in the back corners that the driver can’t and warns against changing lanes.
Forward Collision Warning – Keeps an eye on the traffic ahead and applies brakes to prevent a collision. Cross
Traffic Alert – Detects oncoming traffic from the side as you back out of the driveway or parking space. Automatic
Parking Assist – Takes over steering to automatically perform parallel parking, which is a lost skill for many of today’s drivers.

All of these features are designed to help keep the driver and its occupants safe on today’s roads. Each new application serves as another baby step toward the ultimate goal of taking control away from the driver and putting it safely into the motherboard of the vehicle’s computer. 

Mercedes Self-Driving Car

“It’s amazing to me that we let humans drive cars,” Google CEO Eric Schmidt told recently. “Computers should drive cars. It’s a bug that cars were invented before computers.” That could change by the year 2020 as self–driving cars start to find themselves on public roads. In fact, there already are many autonomous test vehicles roaming around the streets of Silicon Valley, blending in with humanoid traffic like any other car, with the one big exception that there is nobody in the driver’s seat.

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx sees self–driving cars coming in the very near future. “I think we’re going to see it within five years,” Foxx said during the 2016 CES. “That doesn’t mean 100 percent penetration; that just means market availability. But I actually think we’re going to see it within five years.”

To start, one might expect a few high–end users to take the plunge into autonomous driving, but as the price comes down and confidence rises, more people will start dipping their driving shoes into the waters of self–driving cars. There will be a steep learning curve, and almost certainly some bumps in the road, but as technology continues to grow and refine the systems, it’s easy to foresee how self–driving cars will one day be the norm rather than the novelty.

Nissan autonomous car

After all, it was just over 100 years ago that the Wright Brothers started tinkering with flying machines, and look where we are in air travel today: Around the world in a matter of hours and heading toward commercial flights into space. Self–driving cars are coming, make no mistake about it.

Autonomous vehicles will take families on Sunday drives and commuters to their workspaces, all while the rider works, reads, connects with friends or even naps. Self–driving cars will open up mobility options for all ages, from children being safely transported to and from school, to Baby Boomer seniors who have had their keys taken away from them. People with disabilities, such as blindness, will have the ability to travel without touching a steering wheel (there won’t be any) and do it safely and efficiently because the car will be doing all the work.

That brings us back to the humble cab driver. Already threatened by the popularity of car–sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft, taxis seem to be on the precipice of extinction—or at least the profession is. Driverless cars mean that there will be no need for drivers of any kind. Mechanical and software engineers, yes, but drivers, no. And because there will be no drivers, there will be no need for lunch breaks, overtime or even sleep. Autonomous vehicles will go 24/7, available any time of the day or night, to anyone who needs to get somewhere . . . anywhere. They will be the taxis of the future—without the cabbie.