Driverless cars might not quite look or fly like the Back To The Future style DeLorean DMC-12, but the technology for driverless cars is already here. Whether you’re for or against driverless cars, they’re inevitably going to be become the main forms of transportation in the future, and there will be benefits and challenges that have far reaching effects on society.

The technology:

The technology for driverless cars is already available. Maps, GPS systems, cameras, sensors and computer systems all play a part in this, however the technology to make them safe for public use is still a work in progress. Companies that are leading the way in the development of driverless technology are Google, Tesla, Nissan and Uber.

How do driverless cars work?

Currently there are no fully autonomous vehicles legally operating in the world. There are partially autonomous vehicles that have various amount of automation. But when cars do become fully autonomous they will use internal maps to build a wide array of the world around them. Various sensors, high powered cameras and sonar have been tested. These will feed into software that controls how fast the car travels, control it’s braking and steering.

Driverless cars will very rarely make mistakes, however they won’t be able to control the actions of other human drivers around them. Obstacles in the cars path will be easier to avoid, but this is where it gets interesting. What if the car has to make a decision? Driverless cars will inevitably have to decide on the least bad scenario.

For example if a possum runs out on the road, the driverless car will have to be able to distinguish how much damage the possum will do to the car, compared to a human, and decide which is going to do the least amount of damage. This ethical question has caused controversy and likely contributed to distrust in the driverless car concept.

Where we’re at right now

Driverless Uber taxis are already being used in Pittsburgh in the US, and driverless car initiatives are in place in the UK and Europe. While fully autonomous cars are not yet available for public purchase, it’s only a matter of time.

Currently, there are various levels of automation available with modern cars. These include systems like cruise control, automatic braking and intelligent window wipers. However it’s expected that within the next 5 years, fully autonomous cars will be approved for use by the general public.

What are the benefits of autonomous cars:

Aside from increased safety on the road, the job landscape can expect positive impacts by the emerging industry. The heavy reliance on digital systems fuels demand for programmers, maps and information systems, but demand for driverless cars will also fuel factory work and could potentially restore factories in towns and cities that had previously closed.

Self driving cars will also benefit those who are unable to drive themselves and provide greater mobility for the elderly generations.

Prices may also fall for services like taxis and public transport, as these won’t require human operation costs.  

With increased road safety, it’s been predicted that greener forms of transport like cycling will become more popular. Environmental impacts will largely be impacted by the use of electricity and green cars.

Potential challenges to overcome:

There are many challenges to overcome before autonomous cars become publicly available. Legislation, safety and public trust are just some to name a few.

Mechanics and auto electrical repair shops will need to adapt to this new technology, but are unlikely to lose business in the near future.

Issues of liability, international driving rules and infrastructure will likely need to be standardised for autonomous cars to operate between countries, and this technology brings huge costs.

One of the biggest challenges for the autonomous car industry, is gaining the trust of the general public. A recent AAA study showed that only 10% of respondents admitted that they’d feel comfortable in a driverless car on the road. Even Ford CEO Jim Hackett made a surprising comment saying “The trust isn’t real high… I  wouldn’t yet, either.” when asking an audience if they’d take a ride to work in a driverless car.

And what about the language of the road? Will driverless cars be able to distinguish an angry beep, see a waving passenger by, understand flashing headlights?

What about the impact on transport machinery and commercial vehicles such as truck transport, ferries, ships and and heavy loading vehicles like forklifts and bulldozers. It’s likely inevitable that this new technology will make its way into these industries as well, but not for some time.

It’s hard to imagine a day when petrol cars, small forklifts and obscure machinery like used reach forklifts will be outdated. Imagine how a Honda prius might be considered a classic car of the green car world in 50 years time.

What about New Zealand?

Driverless cars might be rolling out in other countries, but there’s a long way to go before New Zealand can expect driverless cars.

A recent report showed that laws, infrastructure and the level of technological development are all barriers to the adoption of autonomous cars.

However, self driving vehicles in airports, retirement villages and campuses are much more likely to be adopted quickly as the cost is much lower to implement. Trials are already underway in Christchurch airport.

Autonomous public transport is likely to be rolled out from 2018-2040, with the rollout of driverless cars as standard not expected in New Zealand until 2055 – 2070.

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