Technology is getting better and better at doing the things that humans used to do exclusively. These steps forward can be amazing in many ways, but they can also be pretty unnerving, especially as technology starts to do things we haven’t yet experienced in our lifetime.

Developing autonomous vehicles is one such venture that has many people talking and wondering. There are admittedly many potential benefits that driverless cars could provide, including limiting the number of cars on the road and possibly reducing traffic accidents. But the technology, it seems, is not quite ready for the public yet, and there are a lot of hurdles to be overcome.

Volkswagen AG CEO Matthias Mueller believes it will be some time yet before the roads are filled with driverless vehicles. He said, “Autonomous driving presents an unbelievable change. It will take many years before we see a car with level 5 autonomous-driving functions on the roads. Just look at how difficult the change from combustion-engine cars to electric cars is."

It leaves us pondering, when can Australians expect to be sharing the road with driverless cars?

The answer may not be a simple one.

How long will it be until driverless cars are the norm?
How long will it be until driverless cars are the norm?

All About Autonomous Vehicles

Civilisation hadn’t been driving for very long when someone already had the inspired idea to create a vehicle that didn’t require a human driver at all. It was 1925, and inventor Francis Houdina was showing off his radio-controlled car. Ever since, we’ve been making our way slowly to fully autonomous autos.

In 1969, John McCarthy, known commonly as the “father of AI” introduced what likely has lead to our modern conception of the driverless car. McCarthy wrote an essay called “Computer-Controlled Cars,” in which he speaks of an “automatic chauffeur” who can navigate roads with the aid of a television camera. His vision was that users could type in commands to their automatic chauffeur and the computerised car would respond, able to slow down, speed up, make a stop, or alter the final destination. This is essentially the direction in which autonomous vehicles have moved.

Today, driverless cars are on the forefront of development, and there’s been a great deal about them in the global news. The technology has reached the point where an autonomous vehicle can drive itself completely independently, using radar and lidar sensors, cameras, and high-speed processors to enable a 360-degree view of the roadways. These elements allow a driverless car to view and register lanes, traffic, pedestrians, signs, stoplights, and anything else which crosses the path of the vehicle. The goal is to have a vehicle which can safely navigate the roadways, responding to any external obstacles and functioning as well as---or better than---a human driver.

Benefits of Driverless Cars

Why do we want driverless cars? Good question. It is posited that there are a number of advantages to their development.

Proponents of the technology believe that autonomous vehicles will actually create safer roads for all of us. Self-driving cars could potentially lower deaths related to automobile accidents because they remove the worrisome element of “human error,” which is said to cause or contribute to 94% of fatalities on roads in the USA. Worldwide, some 1.2 million people are killed in traffic incidents annually. It’s likely that there are many contributing factors in every incident, but human error certainly plays a role.

Many supporters of the autonomous vehicle movement claim that the rise of driverless cars will reduce traffic on the roadways. This is because fewer people will need to own their own vehicles, and will rely increasingly on ride-sharing services and similar programs. The decrease of traffic will make for a smoother, more efficient driving experience and reduce the likelihood of accidents. There are promising outcomes for the environment, too. As fewer vehicles take to the roads, CO2 emissions will be lowered. And with the advent of electric-powered vehicles, the environmental savings will be even better. If autonomous vehicles are powered by electric and largely shared, one expert intimates that greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by as much as 80% by the year 2050.

Finally, driverless vehicles have a personal benefit for individuals. By no longer having to manage your own commute, you could have more free time for getting work done, relaxing, or pursuing a hobby. This could have positive effects on your mental and physical health, as well as lead to an increase in productivity. Fewer accidents (and lowered stress from not having to drive) could lower health care costs as well.

Win-win.

Are Humans Better or Worse Drivers than Machines?

Will computers truly do a better job at piloting our vehicles? It’s tough to say.

There are significant concerns surrounding the onslaught of autonomous, driverless vehicles---and with good reason. Just recently, a female pedestrian was struck and killed by a driverless car in Arizona, USA during an autonomous test run by Uber.

The vehicle was travelling at night, moving at a speed of 40 mph down a roadway when the pedestrian, walking with a bicycle, passed in front of the moving car and was hit. The Uber vehicle apparently did not slow down, engage the brakes, or otherwise react to the pedestrian.

There are many problems with this event, which has gained notoriety for being the first recorded pedestrian fatality which took place due to an autonomous vehicle. First, the crash represents a failure of the autonomous technology to sense and detect the woman’s presence as a potential obstacle. The complex sensors may have detected the woman, but, according to experts, they appear to have failed to ‘compute’ what they were detecting. It seems that the vehicle was not able to distinguish the presence of a person in the vicinity, because it failed to react.

The second problem with the Uber incident is that there was actually an emergency backup driver at the wheel. This individual failed to see the pedestrian in time to apply the brakes on the car. A major concern that opponents have regarding driverless cars is that even when a driver is present, they may end up relying too heavily on the abilities of the computerised machine beneath them, resulting in them paying very little attention to the road. Whether this was the case or not in the Uber accident, it’s a concern worth noting.

Who is at fault if no one is at the wheel?
Who is at fault if no one is at the wheel?

It also begs the question: who is accountable when a self-driving vehicle hits an individual? At the moment, there’s plenty of work to be done in all countries surrounding legislation for driverless vehicles. This is just one facet to be dealt with.

There are also the dangers of the roads themselves. Some statistics suggest that our roads aren’t actually getting any safer, despite the emergence of a vast number of safety-focused technologies over the past few decades. Many urban areas report worsening pedestrian fatality rates, and changes like bigger vehicles (SUVs) and more distracted drivers (mobile phones) are partially to blame.

Essentially, fear about driverless cars is not unfounded, because despite the accuracy of machine technology, there’s a human element that has been a major part of driving for a century or more. Not to mention, we’re not at all used to this unusual technology, which can make us very uncomfortable. This objection may be surmountable in the future---we’ll get used to the new normal, after all---but for now, our reticence makes autonomous vehicles feel far in the future.

Is Australia Ready?

With all the chatter around autonomous vehicles, Australians have to wonder when they themselves might begin sharing the road with such automobiles. The answer is still a bit murky, although many sources declare that the technology will be fully ready here within a decade. And despite the fact that these driverless cars may be well on their way, a fair number of Australians report feeling less-than-enthusiastic about the idea. In a poll conducted by Ipsos, around 16% of Australians (1 in 6) answered that they would never use an autonomous vehicle.

This is in stark contrast to the results found in many other nations, including China and India, where roughly half of those surveyed claimed they “couldn’t wait” for driverless technology. It’s scepticism like this that may be contributing to Australia’s slow uptake of the autonomous vehicle.

Ipsos director Jessica Elgood suggested that “perhaps the reluctance of Australians to embrace this emerging technology has to do with our nation having a historically strong identity as a car culture.” While Australians demonstrate a willingness to accept other technological advancements, the change in car culture might be what’s holding many back from being more enthusiastic.

Will you feel comfortable with driverless cars on Australia’s roads?
Will you feel comfortable as a pedestrian with driverless cars on Australia’s roads?

It’s not just attitudes; there are other reasons Australia might not be quite ready for driverless cars, as well as reasons why we’re lagging behind.

Out of 20 countries observed as part of an “autonomous vehicle readiness” survey, Australia placed only 14th. Other nations are moving much faster towards a society of driverless vehicles, but we’re lagging behind.

Each country was evaluated countries on four pillars: policy and legislation, technology and innovation, infrastructure, and consumer acceptance. In addition, the countries which were calculated as ‘more ready’ for autonomous vehicles were those which had outstanding roads and mobile network infrastructure, as well as public authorities who were actively engaged in and supporting AV development.

Australia’s main issues appear to be the need for road improvements and a lack of electric charging infrastructure. We could also benefit from greater private sector investment and innovation. Falling behind in this area may largely be due to a lack of a local automotive industry here in Australia. Other countries with this resource close to hand may be more driven towards autonomous vehicle technology.

Who can we look to for guidance? The Netherlands may be a solid choice. This nation leads the way in autonomous vehicle growth and ranked #1 in the KPMG autonomous vehicle readiness study. Not only do they have the highest density of electric vehicles (which many believe is a crucial step in autonomous vehicle growth) they also boast top rankings for conducting autonomous driving trials without a backup driver. This is due in part to legislation that allows for vehicle testing on public roads. It may also arise from the fact that European nations, on the whole, seem to be moving more cautiously when it comes to trialling their driverless automobiles.

All around, the Netherlands is performing really well in the AV field. The country has over 1000 traffic lights with the capability to communicate with autonomous vehicles. Across the Netherlands, almost 27,000 electric vehicle charging points are in place, the highest density in the world. A significant number of businesses are involved in industry research, too, which means promising things to come for autonomous car growth in the Netherlands.

For Australia, we can follow some of these trends if we want to pave the way for AV development. Increasing our electric vehicle research and investment is a must, particularly via private sector companies. Improvements to our roads will help matters, and will have additional benefits of their own. And of course, our legislation needs to be in place to create the safest conditions possible. An important step is to determine an effective testing system for autonomous vehicles. This includes figuring out where these tests can take place, whether on out on the open road or within the confines of a controlled environments. As we’ve already seen in examples from other countries, putting driverless cars on the road too soon can be potentially dangerous.

So when will Australians start sharing the roadways with robot-driven vehicles? Time will tell, but in the meantime, there’s plenty of work to be done.

One thing’s for sure, companies, lawmakers, and researchers need to be sure to prioritise safety over excitement. Though the successful permeation of driverless cars into our roadways will definitely be an amazing accomplishment, we need to make sure that the roads, its pedestrians, and of course its cars, are truly and safely ready.

Would you ride in a driverless car?

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