Most of the world’s car manufactures are currently developing automated stop-gap technologies, like radar and laser systems that allow for driverless parking, or lane assist that prevents you slipping into the hard shoulder, or some automatic braking that makes sure you don’t run through a junction if you missed that the light was red. These are all well and good, but they’re a long way off the fully automated vehicles that we want to see in the future. Google on the other hand thinks it’s almost cracked it and can make its driverless bubble cars available to the public as soon as 2017.
There are of course some caveats to that, like the fact that the cars are currently quite limited in what they can do. There’s only about one per cent of American roads that can be reliably driven on by these automated vehicles at the moment, they’re also quite slow, are very expensive and need to bypass problematic legislation in order to be legally drivable on the roads. But at least the ball is rolling and with Google suggesting such a “coming soon,” date, it puts the pressures on governments not to bottleneck a technology that has massive implications for efficiency and road safety.
However as Inferse brings up, technological issues could also be a problem. Near 100 per cent of roadways are currently designed with people in mind, which means that much of the way that information on how to drive on certain roads is imparted, is via the visual medium. While Google cars are outfitted with all sorts of high tech cameras, radar and lasers, they aren’t optimal at detecting things that to a human are a breeze. Checking what colour the lights are when you race through them is difficult. Spotting small obstacles like a rock that could puncture a tyre are going to be very hard as well.
Parking is a whole other nightmare. Sure some cars can park themselves, but they aren’t going to be masters of the parallel park any time soon. Throw in other drivers that haven’t respected the bay system, or a multi-story and your brand new automated car is going to throw a fit.
But there are issues even if the detection is correct. While a human might tap the brakes or just get ready if a person at a distance steps out in front of the car to cross the road, Google’s car might jam the brakes on hard to prevent a collision. Then there’s the scenario of being told to stop by a policeman that isn’t blocking your path. The car won’t stop for that and you may not have the ability to force it (hence why many legislators want Google’s cars to have manual controls too).
Ultimately, there’s a lot still to figure out with driverless cars, which while exciting have a long way to go. That doesn’t mean you should write them off, as if Google is saying 2017, then by 2017 there should be something interesting to look at. Just don’t expect to be heading to work in your own automated car until well into the ’20s.