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Lesson 3: What are Self-Driving Cars?


What are self-driving cars?

Cars that could drive themselves have long lived in the realm of fiction. Within the next few years, this fiction will become a reality, thanks to the self-driving car.

Self-driving cars are automobiles that do not require human operation to navigate to a destination. They use cameras, sensors, and advanced software to interpret and respond to traffic, pedestrians, and other surroundings on the road.

What are the benefits of a self-driving car?

The biggest benefit of using a self-driving car is significantly fewer traffic accidents. More than 90% of all accidents are caused by some degree of human error, including distraction, impaired driving, or poor decision making. With self-driving cars making decisions and communicating with one another, the number of accidents should plummet.

Other benefits will include:

  • Mobility for the elderly and disabled, who may not be physically or legally able to operate a human-driven vehicle
  • Reduced traffic congestion, thanks to self-driving cars communicating and coordinating with one another
  • More free time during commuting hours because drivers will no longer have to operate their vehicles

How do I get one?

You can’t own a self-driving car yet, but there are hints of the future in many cars currently on the road. Blind-spot monitors, driver-drowsiness detection, emergency braking assistance, and several other driver-assistance systems have become common in recent years, and they will only improve as the technology progresses.

For instance, Tesla vehicles have several advanced driver-assistance features, such as matching speed with other vehicles on the highway and a self-parking mode. However, these features still require a human driver’s attention because they were designed to assist the human driver rather than drive the cars themselves.

As for actual self-driving cars, they can be found on public roads if you know where to look. The ride-sharing company Uber has begun using self-driving cars in Pittsburgh for testing purposes, although an Uber driver will remain behind the wheel in case the need to take control arises.

Do they have pedals and a steering wheel?

Yes, there are pedals and a steering wheel and everything else you need to take control of the vehicle. The first few generations of self-driving cars will likely hand over control to a human driver if it cannot process what its next move should be.

Could self-driving cars change society?

It's very possible. When self-driving cars become the dominant type of vehicle on the road, many things in society will likely change. However, many of those changes are still obscured by big questions, including:

  • What happens to workers who drive for a living? Taxi drivers, bus drivers, delivery drivers, and truck drivers will all be impacted by self-driving technology.
  • Who is at fault when two self-driving cars have a traffic collision?
  • Could the vehicles be hacked into and controlled by an outside party?
  • What types of privacy issues will arise? With the constant communication between cars, information like your location and driving habits may be accessible to car manufacturers and other drivers.

At the moment, there is no clear answer to any of these questions. It also doesn’t help that there is currently little regulation for self-driving cars. Until lawmakers determine answers to some of the questions above, the presence of self-driving cars could be limited on public roads.

What’s the timeline for self-driving cars?

Testing continues for self-driving technology as various companies work out the more complex problems. But by 2021, experts believe these problems will be solved, allowing the first truly self-driving cars to be available for purchase. Also, human-driven vehicles will continue gaining self-driving features, like navigating stoplights, intersections, and city traffic without human input.

By 2030, it’s believed that self-driving cars will become the dominant mode of transportation in the United States and that human driving will become less common. Even the more conservative predictions believe human driving will be rare by 2050.

These predictions are based on current trends and the rate of technology development, and there’s always a chance that some unexpected issue will appear and throw off these forecasts. But while they may be off by a few years, there is no doubt that self-driving cars are in our future, and that future is not far away.