It sounds about as likely as successful time travel or finding life on other planets, but a combination of exciting technological advances has resulted in a driverless car becoming a reality. Whilst the first driverless cars to be trialled in the UK will still require a responsible driver, it is hoped that in the future the systems controlling these vehicles will become sophisticated enough to require little input beyond the pressing of a start/stop button. So how do driverless cars work and what are the benefits of moving towards transport which requires only a minimal level of human control?
How do driverless cars work?
Essentially the motion of the car is controlled by a complex central computer, which receives data on the car’s position with respect to other objects, current road restrictions, speed, acceleration and location through a range of sensors and cameras. Building on previous road safety developments, such as blind spot warnings and automatic braking, state-of-the-art systems can tell the car’s computer everything it needs to know to navigate safely. All this information enables the computer to make alterations to the car’s speed or position, enabling it to keep moving safely towards its final destination. Currently some driver input is still required, as occasionally the computer doesn’t gain enough data to enable a logical decision to be made. When this is the case, the driver is given a few seconds of warning before manual control is needed, meaning the driver still needs to be engaged in the driving experience.
What’s happening in the UK
The UK government appears keen to embrace the potential advantages which the technology controlling driverless cars can bring. Recent approval was given for driverless cars to be trialled in four places in England – Milton Keynes, Grenwich, Bristol and Coventry. The results of these tests will be used to inform the future of driverless transport across the UK, forming the beginning of the slow, but almost inevitable shift towards the adoption of driverless cars at the expense of manually operated versions over the next few decades.
The benefits of driverless cars
A key advantage of driverless cars which is well recognised is that they are safer. Human error is a major factor in causing road traffic accidents. Failing to notice key information signs on the road, going too fast for the traffic conditions or fatigue can all cause a potentially fatal lapse in concentration. Driverless cars will automatically obey speed limits, slow down when conditions are dangerous and are programmed to detect the vehicle’s proximity to other cars, kerbs and road markings, all helping to avoid an unpleasant collision.
Green campaigners are also supportive of the driverless car; not only will it travel at speeds designed to limit congestion and tail backs, there is also the potential to use less fuel. Greener driving practices, such as gentle braking, slower speeds and constant progress rather than repeated starts and stops will also be part and parcel of the driverless car’s motoring characteristics.
The challenges which driverless cars present
To make it possible for driverless cars to operate successfully across the entire road network, significant and costly infrastructure changes will be needed. It’s currently unclear how cost-effective this will be and also whether the science is far enough forward to present solutions to all the issues which a road user might reasonably be expected to experience.
Ethical dilemmas and defining the parameters of occupant responsibility remain a complex issue. How much responsibility should the passenger of a driverless car have if the technology malfunctions? What happens if the car is faced with a situation which calls for a moral judgement rather than one based on logic (for example if there is a dog in the road, should the car run it over if to avoid it might potentially endanger pedestrians)? Should driverless car passengers be able to consume alcohol, or does one need to remain sober in case of an unexpected incident? Questions like these have no easy answers but will inevitably need to be addressed before driverless cars can become a mainstream method of transport.
Appropriate lessons and training needs to be considered, especially when early forms of driverless car require periodic human intervention. Issues such as insurance, MOT complexities and repairs will need to be suitably regulated. Some experts fear that the driverless car’s reliance on computer-based technology means that it is a vulnerable target for hackers or cyber-terrorists. Clearly all the above issues need to be addressed before driverless cars become an everyday reality for people living in the UK.
Governmental willingness to proactively support the testing and future role of driverless cars in the UK is bringing the possibility of a driverless transport system one step closer to reality. Although there are considerable challenges to be overcome, the potential advantages in terms of increased road safety and the resultant savings on hospital care, first response units and police activity, which this would bring, are significant. Saving lives as well as the planet, there are significant reasons why the successful introduction of driverless cars could mark the start of a transport transformation. Imagine travel in the future to be simply a case of programming in your destination and pressing the “go” button before sitting back to enjoy the ride!