Self-Driving Vehicles: The Past, Present & FutureDecember 7, 2022
Self-Driving Vehicles: The Past, Present & Future
Self-driving cars have been on the horizon for years now, with automakers, lawmakers, regulators, and others all working diligently to prepare for a future with driverless vehicles. That raises some complex questions, including:
- How did we get here?
- Where are we at with self-driving cars right now?
- When can we actually expect to be riding in or sharing the roads with driverless vehicles?
To answer those questions, let’s take a closer look at the past, present, and predictions for self-driving vehicles.
Background on Self-Driving Vehicles: A Brief Timeline of the Past & How We Got Here
As the product of decades of technological advancements, driverless cars stopped being the stuff of science fiction fantasy and started to become a reality as automated safety features started to become features on these vehicles. In fact, arguably, one of the first “autonomous” vehicles was the Stanford Cart, created in 1961 in an effort to troubleshoot moon landings.
The Stanford Cart, equipped with cameras, was programmed to detect lines on the ground and follow them. From the 1960s through the 1980s, researchers created several modifications of the Stanford Cart, including some with sensors, robotic arms, and tactile feedback modules to better detect and respond to the Cart’s surroundings.
By the 1990s, research into driverless vehicles had really taken off, with engineers and innovators at institutions across the U.S. working on ways to advance autonomous cars. One of the more notable projects was the NavLab5, a self-driving car created by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.
In 1995, researchers watched as the NavLab 5 traversed the nation, driving nearly 2,800 miles from Pittsburgh to San Diego without a driver (and with researchers only controlling the brakes and the speed).
By the turn of the century and into the 2010s, the push to make self-driving cars mainstream had hit full throttle, with several major carmakers and ridesharing companies hustling to develop their own driverless vehicles.
With all of this, regulators and lawmakers have moved quickly to keep up, working to establish statutes, rules, and requirements to protect the driving public as the transportation landscape shifts wildly.
The Present: Where are We Currently at with Driverless Cars?
Right now, you can’t go out and buy a car that can fully operate, without any human interaction, 100% of the time, on all roads, and under all conditions. Autonomous vehicle technology just isn’t there yet. Consequently, you aren’t going to be surrounded by fully driverless cars on the roads in Texas (or across the U.S.) any time soon.
Instead, the current state of self-driving cars is characterized by:
- Assistive safety technologies in modern vehicles: This includes features like braking, speed, and steering assistance. With all of these innovations, the driver needs to remain alert and engaged while the technology provides extra help if or when needed.
- The testing of driverless cars in certain U.S. cities: Autonomous vehicles are being discretely tested in several cities nationwide (see a complete list here). In Texas, self-driving vehicle testing is currently underway in Dallas, Austin, College Station, Houston, and Katy. Keep in mind that this testing is for both self-driving cars and driverless trucks, including autonomous package delivery trucks.
So, depending on where you are or where you go in Texas, you could see some of this testing in action. However, there’s still some time before driverless cars are commonplace on Texas’s roads, as well as across the country.
The Future of Self-Driving Vehicles: Predictions for What’s Next
While autonomous vehicles have certainly come a long way, there are still some major hurdles to overcome if driverless cars are ever going to become mainstream. Some include:
- The roads: Road markings and traffic signage are not standard from state to state. On top of that, these key roadway features can be damaged, obscured, faded, or otherwise difficult for driverless vehicles to “read.”
- Weather: Moisture and fog can easily cloud cameras and interfere with sensors, disrupting how vehicles monitor their surroundings.
- Object recognition: Self-driving cars are not very good at distinguishing between different objects, like telling the difference between pedestrians, animals, traffic cones, trees, or garbage (for example). While artificial intelligence (AI) is helping address this complex issue, existing tech simply can’t recognize objects correctly every time. That’s a problem that could cause deadly crashes, and it needs to be resolved before driverless cars move out of their testing phase.
- Liability: Outside of technology issues, there are also legalities to consider, like who would be liable for a crash if no one’s in the driver’s seat. This question has yet to be addressed, and the answer could have major implications for carmakers, software companies, and other parties.
So, how far away are driverless cars? How much longer do we have to wait for them?
Within a decade — by around 2030 — self-driving cars could be the new standard in transportation, some experts believe. Only time will tell if that happens so soon.
Self-Driving Vehicles: The Bottom Line
When it comes to driverless vehicles, the bottom line is that these cars have a storied past, an eventful present, and a promising future.
Although autonomous vehicles have come a long way — and there’s still a long way to go before they’re standard and common on the roads — self-driving cars could revolutionize the way we get around. They could also transform public safety and what it takes to recover from motor vehicle accidents.