WITH THE UK'S FIRST driverless "pod" vehicle trials hitting Milton Keynes this month, autonomous cars on our roads is quickly becoming a reality.
The final design of the electric-powered LUTZ Pathfinder pod was presented to members of the public last week, and will be the first driverless vehicle of its type to operate in public areas in the UK. Designed to work on footpaths and in pedestrianised areas without a driver, the LUTZ Pathfinder is the first vehicle of its kind to be used in a community setting.
The pod project in Milton Keynes, which will ferry the public between popular areas in the city while producing zero emissions, is merely one example of the rise of autonomous vehicles thanks to government investment and the many positive outcomes related to it.
And there is plenty more. The trade body the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT) said earlier this year that autonomous vehicles will create almost a third of a million jobs over the next 16 years.
But while many people are getting excited over the prospect of driverless cars, and the idea alone sounds pretty cool, there's a big question looming: are they safe? And when it comes to handing over the controls to a robot, would the average Joe be willing to trust their life to it?
According to the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineering (IEEE), the answer to that is yes.
Kevin Curran, senior member of the IEEE and lecturer at the University of Ulster, says that unlike humans "computers don't get bored, tired or distracted because they want to change the radio station or send a text message".
According to the US Department of Transportation's National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey, 94 percent of road accidents are caused by human error, and it is said that driverless technology will drastically lower, if not eliminate this factor.
Curran explains that this improvement in road safety with driverless cars is simply down to there being many tasks that robots, machines or driverless cars can do much better than people.
"In the case of driverless cars, they are using many sensors, cameras and radar to control those inputs but they are not perfect just yet," explains Curran.
"In time however, we can expect few traffic accidents, due to an autonomous system's increased reliability and faster reaction time compared to human drivers."
He highlights this with Google, which tested self-driving cars and managed over 700,000 autonomous miles without any collisions.
But it's not only safer driving that we can expect as an outcome of driverless cars. Experts claim that once the autonomous vehicles become a reality, we can expect increased roadway capacity and reduced traffic congestion due to the reduced need for safety gaps and being able to better manage traffic flow.
For example, German automotive firm Daimler are developing the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 in the belief that drivers of the vehicle will be able to be "transport managers" rather than truck drivers.
"The vision for these driverless trucks is that they start, and organise their collection, transport and delivery at their destination autonomously," notes Curran.
"It is hoped that they will react flexibly to spontaneous situations like traffic jams by negotiating new delivery times with customers. Nissan and other vehicle companies are also testing similar systems."
Also, as crash avoidance technology becomes more common, we can expect that lane departure warnings will become mandatory.
"Previous attempts to commercialise automatic vehicle control have failed because they required dedicated infrastructure and vehicles that must remain entirely under automatic control," Curran says.
"New technologies, like CMOS radar-on-a-chip and all-weather LIDAR, will lead to more intelligent and safer vehicles."
With all these advances and potential improvements that autonomous vehicles can bring to our infrastructure, it is perhaps inevitable that driverless cars will supersede human driven ones.
It is predicted that people of 2030 will have some 320,000 jobs in the self-driving car industry open to them, and there will be 2,500 more people alive than there might have been otherwise.
A recent study carried out by the SMMT entitled Connected and Autonomous Vehicles: The UK Economic Opportunity, projected that the number of accidents will fall by 25,000 a year over the next 16 years.
"The potential of the connected car is huge. It is certainly one of our top priorities and we are making a significant investment in the technology, skills and partnerships to make this a reality," said Jaguar Land Rover's global connected car director, Mike Bell.
"We have huge potential to ensure the car has a prominent role in the Internet of Things, which will enhance the driving experience and make driving smarter, safer and even cleaner in the years to come."
According to Curran, the primary reason that will lead to this explosion in autonomy will be that people will be so engrossed in cyberspace, such as virtual reality, that to "manually" waste time in driving a car would seem ridiculous.
"It should be remembered that for many, it is a rite of passage to pass a test and drive one's own car [but] younger generations who are growing up with game consoles and smartphones might not be as deeply in love with driving as previous generations," he explains, addng that they are also more likely to be less engaged due to their ever-connected lifestyles, thus more likely to cause accidents.
"The ability to continue texting and remaining actively connected to the internet might lead [youngsters] to desiring driverless cars," Curran says.
"This connectedness of course might be a real worry in the future as distractions account for one-fifth of crashes with injuries, and one in 10 drivers under 20 involved in crashes with fatalities were distracted."
While driverless vehicles open up new possibilities such as allowing those who are not legally eligible to drive - convicted drink drivers, younger people, older people or those with disabilities - to be mobile, it should be noted that one of the major barriers to driverless technology is legislation.
Legislation related to the level of control a car can take can be very strict, and although these laws are expected to change as the technology becomes more popular, it is this which could slow down the progress of autonomous vehicles in the UK.
Sceptics have expressed concern that the margin for computer failure is too high, something that will surely be fine-tuned and improved as driverless technology is perfected. But in order for driverless technology to really take off, governments will need to have faith in the electronics and allow them to take over driving completely. µ
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