Self-Driving Cars: No Longer Science Fiction
Not a fan of taking the wheel? Prefer to be the passenger? Never fear, autonomous cars are here. It is predicted that nearly 10 million self-driving vehicles will be on the road in the very near future, as soon as 2020 in fact. Industry leaders, BMW, Mercedes, and Tesla already have fully operational autonomous vehicles currently being tested on city streets, and nearly 30 more car manufacturers will be throwing their hat into the ring in the next year. In fact, there are vehicles in production now that could very well be available for public use in 2017. Keep in mind that the first to hit the market, although considered fully autonomous, are further distinguished as being user-operated, meaning they still require a driver behind the wheel to step in if the self-driving system were to disengage.
Although rare, vehicle sensors can cause the system to disengage in the event of unexpected driving conditions, for example, road construction or nearby accidents. More often than not, however, companies testing autonomous vehicles are discovering that it is usually the driver who disengages the system, sometimes out of necessity, but often out of discomfort. Although already on the horizon, fully autonomous “driver-less” cars are years away yet, due to insurance issues, as well as current laws and regulations.
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Thousands of miles on the road testing out the nuances and idiosyncrasies of each individual system is working toward creating a complete picture for each company on how to improve and make these cars of the future safe for daily use. The DMV is closely monitoring all activity, especially accident reports, and keeping strict regulations in place regarding where and when these vehicles are allowed to be tested in public. Currently, by law, both semi-autonomous AND fully autonomous vehicles (user-operated) are required to have a driver present, but there are proposed regulations in play that would allow manufacturers to test fully autonomous (driver-less) vehicles on public roads as well.
Now despite the anticipated production of self-driving vehicles, don’t expect to be driving one any time soon, unless you have an extremely generous budget. The price tag on these new models will be astronomically inflated, both due to the novelty and the technology required. Currently, the cost of LIDAR, the extremely sensitive laser that works as the core to most all autonomous vehicle systems, is very expensive. As of March of this year, Quartz calculated that the cost to buy a self-driving vehicle adds approximately $250K to the standard base model price of whatever car you choose. Google’s self-driving car project, Waymo, has declared that they may have found a more affordable alternative to LIDAR, but it is not yet in the final stages of production. There is hope yet, with technology improving on an almost daily basis, and the prevalence and availability of these autonomous vehicles projected to rise drastically, it is very likely you may be able to get behind the wheel of one of these futuristic cars in the next decade or so, even if it’s just for a test-drive, or more accurately, a test-ride.