Our self-driving future is here... almost

In the past the idea of a driverless car would have featured in a science fiction movie rather than in companies’ plans for anything between the next six months to ten years. But automated vehicles are increasingly becoming less of a product of the imagination and more of a reality. By 2020, roads may look completely different.

In a sense, driverless cars are already here. In the summer of 2016, Uber began trialling them in Pittsburgh—although there were still two members of staff in the vehicles to make notes and step in if anything went wrong. Not that they needed to: the cars were mostly capable of navigating the city without human intervention.

We are very much still in trial stages, but some vehicle companies and their founders are confident of making great strides in the immediate future. Elon Musk, the creator of Tesla, said in April 2017 that by the “November or December of this year, we should be able to go from a parking lot in California to a parking lot in New York, no controls touched at any point during the entire journey”. Although he did clarify that the passenger would need to be able to intervene (so wouldn’t be able to fall asleep, for example), he predicted that Level 4 automated Tesla vehicles—where a car is driverless in almost all situations—would be available from 2019.

Google too have been involved in testing automated vehicles, with perhaps even more optimistic starting estimates than Tesla’s Elon Musk. In 2012, at which point Google’s driverless vehicles had already test-driven 300,000 miles, Sergey Brin said that “you can count on one hand the number of years it will take” for Google to have produced automated vehicles for the public. Although the technology behind the vehicles has not been finalised yet they have developed their automated vehicle project into an official company called Waymo as of December 2016. Chris Urmson, head of the project, has said that they are aiming to release the product by 2020.

Other car manufacturers are not so ambitious but are still making predictions that would see the introduction of entirely automated vehicles within the next five years. Nissan-Renault are looking to slowly increase the capacity of their cars to drive independently. Their aim for the ability to navigate a multi-lane highway by 2018, and complete automated ability in more complex driving situations such as urban environments, by 2020. BMW is working with Intel and Mobileye to create fully automated vehicles by 2021.

Even those that are cautious about the technology are working on ambitious timescales. The president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute, Adrian Lund, said in 2016 that he thought a Level 5 automated vehicles—the top level of automation, which would not require a driver under any circumstances—would be a minimum of 10 years away. A Level 4 vehicle could be managed within five, he thought.

Hyundai has also taken a slower approach: they are “targeting for the highway in 2020 and urban driving in 2030.” It is worth bearing in mind, however, that many later estimates make reference to Level 5 vehicles, while frequently earlier ones are for vehicles that have reached Level 4 of automation. Naturally timeframes are going to be longer if they are aiming for a higher level of technological advancement.

As things stand, the technology is still very much a work in progress, and accidents can and do happen. In May 2016, a trial drive of a Tesla ended in a fatality when “neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied”. However, they did note that this was the first fatality of over 130 million miles of autopilot driving, whereas the world average is a fatality every 60 million miles.

Predicting the future is difficult. We cannot be sure exactly when autonomous vehicles will finally be here. But the best guess is we'll start seeing something serious in the next decade. Seeing as it typically takes fifteen years for the great majority of car owners to update their models, if manufacturers switch to only automated vehicles by 2030, it will still be at least 2045 by the time driverless cars completely dominate the road. While this may seem a while away, it seems as if ultimately, within many of our lifetimes, driverless cars will have a monopoly on roads across the globe.