Self-Driving Vehicles: The American Dream

Americans have been dreaming of the self-driving car since George Jetson dropped off his boy Elroy in the opening credits of the Jetsons. The morning commute would be a dream if you could just get in the car, enter your destination and sit back and relax. Maybe take a nap, change your baby, or prepare your notes for that early morning meeting.

In recent years, tech companies and the automobile industry have made huge strides towards the reality of self-driving, or autonomous, cars. The rationale behind the autonomous vehicles is that they will increase consumer safety and efficiency by eliminating or reducing the human errors that cause traffic accidents.

The Cars That Make Heads Turn

Self-driving vehicles were among the biggest buzz at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. Google’s self-driving vehicles are already common on some streets in California. This year was no different, with industry giants such as BMW, Mercedes Benz, Ford and Kia revealing new partnerships and new cars with advanced semi-autonomous features.

Already, on-board and internal engine components of automobiles feature electronic devices and guidance software – from engine starters to self-park programing. This new technology includes real-time camera rear and side view guidance systems, touch-screen dashboards and consoles designed to integrate with your smartphone, and a smart-wheel to minimize distracted driving habits. With each passing year, the reality of a completely driverless car gets closer. Most manufacturers already have the exact year in mind: 2020.

Closer Than You Think

Maybe it’s hard to believe that in as little as 4 years, your car could take you to your destination completely on its own. At CES, Kia, Audi, Bosch and Faraday Futures revealed completely autonomous concept cars. In fact, Mercedes’ offshoot Diamler AG revealed the world’s first autonomous semi-truck earlier this year. It makes sense they would choose this venue to debut similar semi-autonomous features in the new E200 and E300 series luxury sedans, expected to launch in 2017.

Are You Ready?

The technology is there, but is the trust? Are consumers really ready to turn over the wheel to a robot? Or to their smartphones? Earning your driver’s license, riding around town and purchasing your first car are rites of passage in American culture. If the purpose of autonomous vehicles is to reduce traffic accidents and increase safety on the road, will our excitement and pride be the same if a robot is responsible for our good driving records? For that matter, how will future insurance rates be impacted?

It would seem consumer trust is the biggest hurdle facing mass production of autonomous vehicles. In 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey that found only 50% of the driving population wants a driver-less car. So although the technologically savvy and trend-fetish millennials are driving the auto industry towards producing cars that are more automated, connected and with massive processing power, it’s hard to get humans to let go of the wheel.

Another consideration is price. Although many environmentally friendly consumers would like to purchase a brand new hybrid or electric vehicle (EV), ownership is often out of their price range. A fully autonomous vehicle, complete with laser radar guidance and processors with the power of 150 MacBook laptops, is bound to carry a price tag of at least $200,000. Right now, auto makers are scrambling to produce a more affordable EV – for example, Chevy plans to sell its new EV Volt for a little under $30,000 after tax rebates.

Then there’s the issue of insurance. In the event an autonomous car gets into an accident, who is to be found at-fault? Could someone infect your car’s software with something like a Trojan virus? What kind of policy would cover that? Just as software engineers must anticipate every possible outcome to create a fully-functioning self-driving car, policymakers must consider every possible legal argument for cars controlled by artificial intelligence.

A Race To The Finish

With only 5 years until automakers begin efforts at mass production of autonomous cars, there are still several hurdles to cross before we can take a drive with our legs kicked up on the dash, and our hands busy with new devices.

Ford CEO Mark Fields is realistic about the outlook for making self-driving cars, “The tech is developing very fast, but dealing with the regulatory, legal and insurance issues that come with autonomous cars will take a concerted effort from everyone in this space. But we have to figure this out, because it’s coming.”

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