Self driving cars have been a fictional staple of a progressive future for decades. Science fiction movies, TV shows, and books have made autonomous vehicles the focus of countless storylines. Now, thanks to a globally competitive mindset that is driving impressive advances in technology, self driving cars are no longer the subject of an abstract future. The future has arrived. It’s just not so prolific that the streets are filled with 100% robotic drivers…yet.
The majority of self driving vehicles have found their way onto the market by fulfilling the needs of specific applications. The driverless ParkShuttle in the Netherlands is guided by magnetic wires laid into the road. London Heathrow Airport’s robo-taxi follows a grid of paths, structured with medians and curbs, that weave between terminals. What do these self driving vehicles have in common? They have some sort of structural guide that ensures they stay on the beaten path. That may no longer be the case.
Onwards and Upwards with Self Driving Cars
Autonomous cars are being developed by almost every major car brand in the world. Tesla, BMW, Nissan, Hyundai, and even Lexus. They all want to get in on a piece of the action. Because competition continues to intensify, improvements are being made faster than ever before.
Some experts believe the major differentiator that will help the market determine which autonomous vehicles are successful and which are not, comes down to how the self driving system works, and not how they drive.
2016 was the biggest year yet for self driving cars, and 2017 will be even bigger. Perhaps the biggest story we’ll see in 2017 will be when a Tesla vehicle drives itself from Los Angeles to New York. If successful, it will be the most successful example of road-worthy vehicle autonomy the world has witnessed to date.
The Flip-Side of Progress
Self driving cars are not immune to problems and negative feedback. Mark Harris of IEEE Spectrum claims that an autonomous car failed approximately every 3 hours in California in 2016. In addition, self driving cars struggle to operate in conditions such as snow, rain, fog, and other types of weather that impede their camera's ability to track lines on the pavement.
Three major hurdles for self driving vehicles:
- Identifying detours and rerouted roads - Extensive, highly detailed route mapping is required for self driving cars to cope with navigating unexpected route alterations.
- Responding to tricky situations - A child running into the street or wind-blown garbage can confuse a self driving car. Should they swerve to avoid the children and run their passengers into oncoming traffic? Algorithms aren’t as sophisticated as the human mind and struggle to make those decisions in a split second.
Assessing objects in the road - Many self driving cars struggle to distinguish between shadows, potholes, puddles, and other objects on the road.
Leading the Self Driving Innovation
Everyone from Apple and google, Tesla and BMW, to Nissan and Hyundai are fighting to win a share of the self driving car market. For the immediate future, much of the focus is on creating fleets of rideshare and taxi vehicles that allow companies like Uber to test and implement new technologies gradually.
Many autonomous vehicle road tests will start taking place in 2017 around the world, including Sweden, China, the United States, and Germany. While it’s clear that self driving technology is becoming more sophisticated each year, there’s still a long way to go to ensure passenger safety.