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If Self-Driving Cars Are the Future, the Future Is Here

In 20 years, owning a regular car will be like owning a horse: cool, but an unusual mode of routine transportation. Sure, you’ll always have those who prefer driving themselves, but they will become a rarity. As technology continues to rapidly evolve, manually driving a car will soon be as unlikely as seeing a horse and carriage on a highway.

At least, that’s where innovators like Elon Musk think the world is headed, and for good reason. The interest in and production of autonomous (self-driven) vehicles has drastically increased in the past decade, and more car manufacturers are taking the plunge into self-driving technology. Musk has led the crusade with self-driving Teslas, but if the technology continues to improve, conventional manufacturers like Ford and Chevrolet and many others will soon have affordable, autonomous vehicles in their lineup as well.

In a recent TEDTalk interview, Musk covered a great many topics, including artificial intelligence and living on Mars. Part of that interview, however, was dedicated to the future of automobiles and, specifically, autonomous cars. Here’s in part what he had to say:

Autonomous Cars Doesn’t Mean Less Traffic

As it stands, public transportation is a vital necessity in big cities. Residents often don’t want to sit in traffic, and the risk of car accidents is enough to keep a lot of drivers off the road. But, when most cars are autonomous, Musk says traffic will be far worse. Why? Shared autonomous vehicles.

Think of it like Uber or Lyft, but without a driver. It’ll likely be much cheaper and more convenient to simply call an autonomous car to pick you up, rather than waiting on a bus. As such, more and more cars will be on the road at any given moment. And with more cars on the road comes more congestion.

Cars Must See Like Humans to Be Successfully Autonomous

As you can imagine, getting autonomous vehicles to actually detect obstacles like other cars, pedestrians, signs and traffic lights is quite a challenge.  Not only will they have to do those things, but they will have to do it as fast and as safely as a human driver. Musk has nearly perfected this aspect in one model of the Tesla. Rather than using laser guided technologies such as LIDAR, like Google uses in their self-driving cars, Tesla uses cameras and GPS to allow their cars to “see” similarly to how a human would.

This technology is called “passive optical.” It’s how humans see the world. RADAR is also used to assist in conditions like heavy rain or snow. Musk says that once vision is solved, autonomy is solved. He plans to prove the effectiveness of this technology by “driving” from Los Angeles to New York completely autonomously by the end of 2017.

Reliability Is the Key to the Market

Road trips are a good way to put the future of self-driving cars in perspective.  If you have had to drive a long distance, chances are you either took turns driving with a friend, stayed awake by drinking a lot of coffee or occasionally stopped for rest at some point along the way.  Being alert and well rested is definitely the safest way to drive. Staying alert and focused won’t be a problem in the future though, because you will be able to rest, relax or even work while your car does the heavy lifting and gets you safely to your destination in a timely manner.  

Musk says this reality is only a couple of years away. It’s a matter of changing the likelihood of a crash from 1 in a 1,000 to, “If you live a thousand lifetimes, there’s still a great chance you’ll never crash.” Of course, with manual cars on the road, being in a wreck that isn’t your fault is still a possibility. But when autonomous cars dominate the market, the likelihood of a wreck drops to practically zero.

So, When Will We Really Have an Autonomous Car?

The way Elon Musk sees it, is that in 10 years, all the cars produced will be autonomous. However, new vehicle production is only about 5 percent of the current fleet. Cars and trucks last about 15 to 20 years before being scrapped. So new vehicle production is only about 1/15th of all the cars on the road. Based on that figure, it will take an additional 5 to 10 years before a majority of the fleet become autonomous.  That means in 20 years there is a very real possibility that all vehicles will be fully autonomous.

Before that can become a reality, though, laws must adapt to autonomous cars. As of now, 21 states have some kind of legislation on the books regulating self-driving cars. In addition, the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently issued new guidelines for the manufacturing of self-driving cars. These guidelines include:

  • Vehicle performance guidelines
  • Model state policy
  • NHTSA’s current regulatory tools
  • Possible new regulations as the technology develops

While owning an autonomous car may still seem like a leap into the world of science fiction, the technology will become a reality.  The future of self-driving cars will change many things in our day to day lives including how we travel and where and when we go. It’s simply now a matter of creating a vehicle that the market will transition from focusing on the owner’s experience of driving to the owner’s new role as only a passenger.  

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