Car manufacturers are sitting on the dawn of a new era: the driverless car.
Tesla — an electric car company known for its well-designed, top-notch electric cars and its founder’s tendency to go to battle against state governments — has long been a proponent of the driverless car. And its product seems to be doing succeeding better than expected.
Recent dash-cam footage out of Europe shows a self-driven Tesla Model X car predicting, and avoiding, a surprise crash on the freeway. The crash, which happened two cars in front of the Tesla, caught the driver and the car in front of them off guard. Luckily, due to the predicting algorithm within the car’s computer software, the Tesla was able to foresee the crash seconds before it even occurred.
This is an exciting turn for car makers, and for Tesla; which has seen two deaths within the past year due to Tesla’s driverless feature malfunctioning (one death in Florida and another possible death in China). Criticism still remains heavy surrounding the reliability of the Tesla self-driving feature, and Tesla states its software is still in “beta phase.” However, multiple video examples of Tesla’s crash-avoidance are available online, and this new footage could add to the growing evidence of a self-driving car’s ability to function better, and be safer, than a human driver.
What does this mean for the future of car manufacturing? Will driverless cars soon become the new norm, and what benefit could this bring to society?
The New Era of Transportation Technology
Driverless cars work off their own internal computer and predictive software. However, if driverless cars were to become a more regular form of transportation, they would soon join the network of the Internet of Things (IOT).
IOT is the interconnectedness of devices, and the software that collects, distributes, and analyzes information. Everything from power grids for large cities to Amazon’s personal assistant, Alexa, run off IOT-based software. It is through this interconnectedness that smart cars could become the standard form of transportation, through the creation of IOT smart cities.
The main benefit is the ability to streamline public transportation in areas that are notorious for traffic and high travel. Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and New York are just a few international cities that could benefit from an IOT framework of cars and connected traffic patterns. The cars will communicate remotely with each other, the traffic system (lights and pedestrian crossings), and other forms of public transportation such as metros or buses. This goal may seem idealistic now, but tech innovators are more than ready to step up to the challenge.
Already, other companies are attempting their own form of a driverless car, and they are eager to prove themselves. Uber, alongside Volvo, introduced the driverless car to Pittsburgh back in September of 2016, and has since brought an updated version of the car to San Francisco. Although the car is not entirely autonomous – with an engineer sitting in the front seat to help navigate through some of the more complicated situations, or to take over for emergencies – the freelance ride-sharing service is looking to emerge as an innovator in this next evolution of the car.
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Controversy is sure to follow the growth of the autonomous car industry; with questions tending to revolve around ethical choices in computer programming and job loss for taxi and truck drivers. Lior Ron, Senior Director of Uber’s autonomous program, notes that the integration should not be accelerated, but the engineers are excited to improve on their platform. He sees a future that he describes as “hybrid.”
“It’s going to be a hybrid network, regardless,” he stated in an interview with The Verge, “It’s not going to be all ‘either/or,’ ‘black or white.’ There’s always going to be room for drivers to cover, maybe, some difficult areas, snowy conditions…it’s going to take us a while to get there.”
Breaking Our Dependency
While many wonder about the growth of driverless cars and the effect this might have on the job market, others are wondering if this could be a win for environmental activism. Could autonomous cars be the answer to breaking our reliance on fossil fuels? Could this lead to less emissions through controlled traffic, ridesharing programs, and low or no-fuel cars?
Christopher Steiner, NYTimes bestselling author and an engineer in autonomy, notes that many consumers have a different perspective than that of the innovators in Silicon Valley and beyond, but that driverless cars could solve many problems in urban areas.
In Steiner’s article about the changing landscape of car manufacturing, he suggests that makers will need to step up or they will fail dramatically in the next few years. Although many consumers don’t see an autonomous future yet, developers are already gearing up to make it happen.
“Autonomous vehicles combined with ride-hailing or sharing will flatten the [car] market. Those who choose to eschew buying or leasing a car can skip worrying about parking, garage space and insurance. For many, this will align lifestyle choices with economics, giving people the freedom and quality of life they prefer while not costing them extra money to get around—a powerful lever. With fewer cars doing more work, automakers will find it difficult to retain and grow share in a shrinking market. The model of building cars and simply waiting for consumers to show up and buy them will be relegated to a smaller and smaller piece of the overall vehicle market.”
This futuristic dream might not be as far off as we imagined, and it could be a key component to unlocking our dependency on fossil fuels. Steiner further postulates that car companies will soon need to transition to electrical formats, and these autonomous cars could be the push that many car manufacturers need to make that happen. Not only that, but a decreased need for personal cars, as well as less time spent idling in traffic could lead to a greener atmosphere for large urban areas and our planet.
The Future is Autonomous
As Uber continues to push their autonomous rideshare programs, and Tesla builds off its driverless model’s success, we could be seeing a more autonomous future within the next five years. Although many drivers may be skeptical to give up control of their car, the potential is exciting and promising.
As long as Tesla’s self-driving software continues to outdo human expectations, and tech innovators in the car industry push for research and electronic adaptation; we could be looking at a much healthier form of transportation. Roads will be safer, the air will be cleaner, and our cars will be communicating for us; getting us safely from point A to point B while we sit back and enjoy the ride.