Self-Driving Cars: Do Not Pass Go

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The following is a guest post.

The hottest technology in automotive circles today appears to be that of the self-driving vehicle, which – theoretically – will soon be capable of operating on roadways without any human intervention. Touted as the “next big thing” by a range of tech utopians, car industry insiders and software developers, these automobiles have the potential to change the way millions of ordinary people get around on a daily basis as well as increase the mobility of people who currently can’t drive at all. Search giant Google is one of the top names in this rapidly emerging space, but despite the massive hype currently surrounding these cars, there are some serious roadblocks that will most likely push their mainstream adaptation back a decade or more.

The concept of driverless cars is still a relatively new phenomenon, as such it’s likely that early models will struggle to reach widespread market success. Just think about the buzz surrounding the early stages of virtual reality in the ’90s, or the introduction of personal “digital assistants” in that same decade. In both cases, the expectations of consumers ran far ahead of what could actually be delivered, and it took more than a decade for developers to supply mature products that sold in profitable numbers.

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Additionally, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done before self-driving automobiles are ready for a prime-time debut, most notably on the quality of the maps used by GPS systems. The software currently utilized by our GPS systems just won’t cut it, as highly detailed maps of every inch of road around the world would need to be mapped out. Cars that have the capability to drive themselves would need to know, down to the inch, where road lanes are positioned, how high the curb is, if there are any bicycle lanes present and other critical information that’s still off the radar. Several companies are working on generating these detailed maps, but they probably won’t be ready for the next three to five years.

Not only would these cars need better maps, there are the issues of fail-proof software, sensors, and communication systems that also need to be addressed. In addition to these technical challenges, there are also many societal elements that will serve to put the brakes on today’s self-driving models. People who travel in these cars will need to be comfortable trusting in a computer to make decisions that will affect their well-being and safety. Just as an ordinary computer is susceptible to hacking or crashing on a moment’s notice, so would be this car system, dissuading individuals from traveling in self-driving cars until the potential for that problem completely disappears. Another matter that needs to be worked out in the division of liability between the driver, the manufacturer, and the software supplier in the event of an accident.

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Even if these hurdles can be adequately cleared, there’s a reactionary force that’s present in every state, county, city and other jurisdiction in the land: the government. Current traffic laws were, in some cases, drafted back in the horse-and-buggy days, and they’ll need to be updated to apply with any relevance to driverless vehicles. Regulatory bodies must also OK any driverless automobiles to hit the road, and such agencies are notorious for their conservatism and resistance to change. While updating the appropriate laws and regulations is, in one respect, as easy as making a new set of rules and printing them up, anyone who has ever dealt with even just the workers at the local DMV, knows that this isn’t a realistic course of action. While self-driving cars are now presented as a question of “when” rather than “if”, there are many indications that this “when” will be much further down the line than most people realize. Even though self-driving cars would be extremely beneficial today – both in regards to their potential for personal convenience and their capacity to reduce the environmental impact of travel — there are major technical hurdles, public misconceptions and legislative factors that will continue to stall their widespread adoption well into the future.

Beth Kelly is a blogger for albertaenergyproviders.ca. Currently based in Chicago, she is a writer specializing in tech and energy topics, as well as a freelance photographer. In her free time she trains for triathlons.