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Driverless cars: The future of travel or trouble in the making? Part 1

It’s undeniable now: autonomous motor vehicles, also called driverless cars, are on the way and likely here to stay – at least for the foreseeable future. However, humans have been the pilots of our vehicles since their invention. Our old wooden carts were horse or ox-drawn, and our modern day sports cars and four-wheel drives still require our touch.

So the very fact that it’s now possible to have a vehicle on the road piloted entirely by a machine poses a number of very difficult questions. Is this safe? Do we even need driverless cars? How will our laws need to change in order to accommodate these developments?

In this two-part series, we will investigate these questions and more, giving you the information you need to formulate an educated opinion on this important subject.

But before we progress, let’s take a step back and examine the present autonomous car industry.

An introduction to the driverless market

Currently, a number of marques are developing a fleet of autonomous cars, to be released around 2020. For the most part, these are names you would expect to see.

For example, Wired reports that Toyota is intending on releasing a modified Lexus GS called the ‘Highway Teammate’. Meanwhile, Ford CTO Raj Nair told Forbes that he also anticipates driverless vehicles to be on the roads within the next half-decade.

Tesla is in the game, too, as well as the tech giant you wouldn’t expect to be here, but who is arguably leading the charge: Google. Indeed, the one-time search engine company has dug into numerous industries recently, including robotics and disaster relief. Though this may come as a curiosity to some, Tech Republic writes that it’s a logical move for Google. Technology is becoming more and more data-driven, and Google is a data specialist. So why not develop products in a variety of different sectors? It would allow the company to spread its offerings, while keeping the same core ideals.

However, enough about the market. How do these cars work?

The technology behind autonomy

If you thought the most recent Porsche 911 Turbo was advanced, you’ll be astounded by the gear packed into driverless cars.

Tech Radar released a report on the basics of this tech in May, and though each marque has its own versions of the hardware, they follow the same basic principles.

The article stated that these advanced machines utilise a mixture of sensors for detecting where things are on the road (cars, pedestrians and other obstacles) in addition to advanced vehicle positioning systems (lane sensors, GPS, accelerometers) to constantly monitor both the car’s position and its surroundings.

This is managed by an artificial intelligence (AI) system, which is able to instantly react in the event of an emergency, as well as download extra data from cloud servers. These servers could contain traffic congestion warnings, road works and street closures.

Beneath all of this are robust backup systems, too.

“Our fail-operational architecture includes backup systems that will ensure that Autopilot will continue to function safely [even] if an element of the system were to become disabled,” said Volvo’s technical specialist Dr Erik Coelingh.

However, can the many driverless competitors create aircraft-level safety systems and backups while still providing an affordable price for the everyday person? It is perhaps this above all else that will determine how popular these cars become.

Though this itself also raises our next question. Do we actually need this technology?

The need for autonomy

There are many points and counterpoints to the great debate of autonomous transport.

For many, cars are a means to an end, and little more. For example, if you want to drive to work, all you need to do is go from A to B. The bells and whistles of a driverless vehicle could almost be superfluous in this instance, and indeed who isn’t already aware that the more technology you have in your car, the more technology there is to break and repair?

But then you have the counter arguments, one of which was very well presented by yet another driverless competitor, Hyundai. The engineers at this Korean make created a miniature Hyundai Sonata to suit a young blind boy, who was then driven around a replica road with stop lights, barriers and crossings. This presented the idea that driverless cars could be a way for disabled or otherwise incapacitated people to get around without the stress of public transport, or needing someone to drive them.

The Telegraph also outlined a number of other positive points about this revolution. Mothers without a licence wouldn’t have to worry about the school run, congestion could be minimised if roads were programmed correctly and parking could be more accurately performed by AI. Though, conversely, taxis, buses and delivery people may be far less in demand.

In our next part, we’ll talk about driverless vehicles in Australia, pose questions of safety and discuss the future of CTP insurance.

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